Skip to main content

Faculty Insights

Finding Satisfaction in Life: Lessons for a Family Business?

By Debra Holschuh-Houden

September 25, 2013

Recently, I read a short article that highlighted the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (formerly known as the Harvard Longitudinal Study, and the Harvard Grant Study, but most widely known as the Grant Study). This research followed a group of men for over 75 years to more fully understand what led to (potentially) healthy lives. Oodles of research has been done on child development, but not so much on adult development (beyond leadership training). The study’s aim was to understand in a deeper way what led to happiness, satisfaction, and contentment.
George Vaillant, one of the directors of the study, argued the most important discovery was that warm, intimate relationships were the strongest predictor of satisfaction in life. A person could have a successful career, make a lot of money, and have good physical health, but without the strong connection with other individuals, there was not happiness. The one thing that made the difference was connection, such as:

  • Having family meetings that bring together siblings and cousins and celebrate what is unique about each member
  • Mixing and matching larger groups to foster connections with other branches so the next generation has an opportunity to develop their own relationships
  • Including in-laws
  • Making time to develop the relationships that make up a family
  • Scheduling fun time at family meetings that foster interconnectedness

Satisfaction with one’s career also involved a connection: feeling a connection with one’s job/business. This connection also trumped money, status, and power. The most successful family businesses are built on the connection of the family to the enterprise. Wise family members try to cultivate that deep connection in the next generation by:

  • Developing a book/story that celebrates the history of the business
  • Teaching the younger generation about the business, including age-appropriate activities that focus on fostering a deep understanding of the products and markets of the company
  • Introducing key non-family members of the business to members of the family who do not work there
  • Having family-wide communication that celebrates milestones of the company

Another point of the study revolved around the ability to face and overcome challenges by making lemonade out of lemons, and overcoming these challenges in a way that moved from thinking about oneself to thinking of others. Suggestions include:

  • In family meetings, have older generation members talk about one of the most challenging issues THEY faced and overcame successfully, which gives younger generation members permission to make mistakes, too
  • Don’t shelter children from experiencing difficulties in life—instead, have them come up with potential solutions to challenges, discuss pros and cons with you, and let them make their own decisions
  • In family meetings, celebrate challenges that family members may have faced since their last meeting and how they overcame them, no matter how small
  • Acknowledge and candidly discuss how overcoming challenges in their own way are one of the keys to happiness

Relationships matter. They matter to the bottom line of your business, they matter to the bottom line of your family, and they matter to the bottom line of your life’s happiness. A family business is at its best when the business and the family are healthy and are connected to each other. Work on each. Life’s happiness is all about connections.