Sometimes, it can seem like the only way to spend enjoyable time together as a family is to do something new and different—like taking a far-away vacation.
But a new study offers some good news for families who aren’t going anywhere for a while: Leisure time spent at home may actually be a more effective way to foster true, long-lasting happiness.
Yes, trying new experiences and visiting new places can be great for bonding with your kids. But when researchers at Baylor University surveyed more than 1,500 people about the types of family leisure they’d taken part in in the past year, they found that those who stayed home and participated in familiar activities more often were actually happier than those who’d ventured out and been more adventurous.
“That may be because when the brain is focused on processing new information—such as taking part in an unfamiliar activity with unfamiliar people in a new location—less ‘brain power’ is available to focus on the family relationships,” lead author Karen K. Melton, Ph.D., assistant professor of child and family studies, said in a press release.
Previous research has shown that people are more likely to feel truly engaged—a concept known as “flow”—when they’re participating in structured activities bounded by rules, rather than unstructured free time. Engagement is one of the three elements of happiness, the authors wrote in their study, along with positive emotion and meaning.
All types of leisure activity have the potential to provide these elements and provide satisfaction within families, the authors wrote. But because time spent at home doing everyday activities can mimic this type of predictable, structured environment, they hypothesized that families would be more likely to achieve flow, or true engagement, during these seemingly mundane moments.
The study, which included survey responses from both parents and their 11- to 15-year-old kids, didn’t examine exactly what families were doing in their homes—only whether their activities were familiar or unfamiliar.
Melton noted that some experts recommend eating together as one of the best ways to bond as a family, and discourage passive activities like watching television. But families should question one-size-fits-all advice for happiness, she added.
“For some families, quality togetherness is having dinner together or playing games; for others, it may be hobbies, videos or TV, music,” Melton said. “At the end of the day, what matters is that we are social beings who crave a sense of belonging and connectivity.”
However, the authors did acknowledge a “discrepancy between best practices and reality.” In other words, not everyone will relate to the notion that staying home will bring them happiness and better relationships.
That’s because families often confuse “home time” with “family time,” Melton told RealSimple.com, and they don’t always know how (or even try) to set rules about what constitutes quality time together. Her suggestion? During designated family times, reduce distractions that could take away from feelings of connectedness.
“Families often add unfamiliarity or stimulation to their family time by multi-tasking, like playing board games but also checking social media posts,” she says. “Therefore, two common rules are no phones and no television as these are common distractions during family time. While kids—and possibly parents—may not like the idea of rules, providing boundaries around family time and during family time actually enhances the time together for everyone.”
If you do have a getaway on the books, of course, there’s no need to cancel. “Other research has suggested that family vacations increase family closeness, so I highly suggest that families who have the time and resources consider taking a vacation,” Melton says.
In fact, a common trend in family vacations—renting an entire home, through sites like HomeAway or VRBO—may provide the best of both worlds. “Families can intermix familiar home-like activities, such as cooking together or playing games together, with novel and exciting activities,” she says.