09 Jun

Relationships and Mental Health

Daughter and father

The Mental Health Foundation have released an excellent report, which you can read here, which sets out further evidence that investing in relationships is at least as important to our health and wellbeing as not smoking. Their argument, like that of Relational Thinking Network, is that  both as a society and as individuals we need urgently to prioritise relationships and tackle the barriers to forming them.

The importance of relationships for health

Looking at a range of evidence, the authors show that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected.

Indeed, a review of 148 studies concluded that:

the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.

They make reference to a longitudinal Harvard study, that began in 1938 and published in the 2012 book ‘Triumphs of Experience’, that found that that relationships are the most important factors for health and happiness.

Factors causing relationship problems

The report discusses a number of inter-related factors that negatively affect relationships. For example:

  • Moving away from one’s hometown, family and friends can have a very real impact on our relationships. Moving means having to adapt to a new physical and social environment. Studies suggest that one of the biggest challenges facing individuals when they move is building relationships and connecting with others.
  • Social media and other online technologies have many positives. However, the report notes that almost half of internet uses in the UK reported that the internet had not increased their contact with friends or family who had moved away.

Indeed, while they have increase our sense of belonging, online relationships cannot replace our offline relationships.

The neurochemical response that occurs during face-to-face interactions contributes to our sense of connection, understanding and ultimately wellbeing. In other words, face-to-face communication still matters.

  • Bullying can have a negative effect on people’s health. Conversely a positive experience at school, particularly with teachers, can “act as a buffer and help protect young people during this difficult time.” This is something that Relational Schools has been researching on.
  • Loneliness and isolation are a significant issue for older people. See an earlier blog post we wrote about this here.

Actions to be taken

The report ends by calling, as the Relational Thinking Network has done, for “a sea change in thinking”. We need to not only recognise the importance of relationships, (which we instinctively do), but that we take an active approach in the way we build and maintain relationships, and to tackle the barriers that prevents strong relationships from being built.


23 May

Achieving of SDGs only by challenging existing paradigms

SDGs report - picture of child tap water

The implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will only be possible by challenging the existing economic paradigm,” said Ms Beris Gwynne, the Head of Programmes of the Relational Thinking Network (RTN), as she introduced the subject in Geneva during a Roundtable Dialogue on the issue on 20 April 2016. “There is a need for a quantum shift in the way we do business if we are serious about achieving the SDGs and all that they entail.”

In preparation the main presenter, Dr Michael Schluter, the founder and Chair of the Relational Thinking Network, wrote a relational critique of the SDGs trying to address the ‘missing dimension’ and this roundtable was meant to enliven the conversation around the subject. He highlighted three main concerns namely what he perceives to be an individualistic underpinning of the SDGs, as well as questions around the definition of ‘poverty’ and the use of the language of development.

Three respondents gave their feedback on Schluters paper and presentation and their views of the SDGs and the challenges around implementation and monitoring. They were Mark Halle, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Professor Lichia Yiu-Saner, President of the Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND), and Dr Samuel Gayi.

The full report can be downloaded here: ReportSDGsRoundTable-FINAL.

You can download Dr. Michael Schluter’s paper here: SDGs paper 22 4 2016 – FINAL2

Photo: Riccardo Mayer

15 Jul

More than money: understanding poverty relationally

relational poverty

Poverty is a pervasive and global problem, but it exists in different forms and has many different effects. Something approaching a billion people are hungry worldwide. One in six people have inadequate access to water and a quarter live without electricity. Global inequality is increasing. The richest one percent of people in the world own nearly half of the world’s wealth, and the figure is expected to grow in the coming years.

In higher income countries like the UK, we tend not to experience poverty in the same way as many of those in low-income countries, but it is still a feature of life for many. Charity foodbanks supplied people with emergency food for three days on over a million different occasions in 2014-15, with around 500,000 unique users.

The definition of poverty
Like so many other things, we are used to seeing poverty in terms of its material dimensions. Generally speaking, we understand it as a financial issue: poverty simply involves not having enough money. This may be the most obvious symptom, but poverty is a much broader issue.

Three of the most commonly-used definitions used in the UK today are Absolute Poverty, Relative Poverty and Social Exclusion.

• Absolute poverty is defined as the lack of sufficient resources to meet physical needs for health.
• Relative poverty defines income or resources in relation to the national average. It is concerned with the absence of the material needs to participate fully in daily life.
• Social exclusion is a fairly new term, broadly similar to relative poverty but including both the causes and effects of poverty. It includes many different factors that can drive and result from poverty: unemployment, substandard housing, education, low income, addiction, crime, health and family breakdown.

Relational capital
Social exclusion starts to get to the heart of the matter, but doesn’t go far enough. We would argue that, more than being about money – which is important but really only the symptom of a deeper issue – poverty is ultimately about relationships. Very often this involves global relationships and injustices, or the structural and institutional relationships that create and perpetuate poverty (including government corruption and inefficiency; punitive interest and debt repayment; labour practices, and so on).

In wealthier countries, it is still those people who are most marginalised and who live on the edges of society, who also tend to be poorest financially. This week we heard the news that children brought up in the care system are heavily overrepresented in the prison population. ‘Fewer than 1% of children and young people are in the care of local authorities, but a third of boys and 61% of girls in custody either are in care or have been.’ A comment from one young offender was particularly telling: ‘If I’d had the support around me when I was younger, I would have stayed as smart and sweet and innocent – but it was the fact that I’ve built myself up with so much anger. I’m not used to anyone supporting me.’ Those with a criminal record will be discounted from around half of all job opportunities and just a third of those leaving prison go on into education, training or paid work.

Those with fuller and broader networks of relationships are often able to cope with a setback such as a divorce, redundancy, debt, eviction and so on, that might trap those who do not have the same relational capital in a cycle of poverty. This is neatly illustrated by Mark Granovetter’s 1973 well-known paper, The Strength of Weak Ties. Granovetter’s research demonstrates that opportunities (in this case, for employment) come most often not from our closest circle of relationships, but from the ‘weak ties’ in our social networks – the friend-of-a-friend, acquaintances and contacts who bridge different and otherwise disconnected social groups and therefore offer access to new and useful information. Despite the language of ‘weak’ ties, these bridges are a key element of relational capital, and those without this richness of relational network are at a serious disadvantage.

Guy Brandon works as a researcher for the Jubilee Centre.

17 Apr

In touch but out of touch


CAMBRIDGE – This week a British newspaper published an article about how connected we are, or better how connected we are not. Under the title “In touch but losing touch: how the ‘connected’ generation are getting lonelier” we are reminded of the fact that “real human interaction is becoming rarer in an era when social media keeps people constantly updated on the minutiae of friends’ lives”. And that where it was often thought that elderly people would suffer most from loneliness, research has found that loneliness is increasing among the younger generation:

“We are meant to be more “connected” than ever in an era of mobile communications but new research suggests that millions of us feel we now have less and less direct contact with other people. A survey found that almost four in 10 people feel they now have less daily interaction with people they know than they did just five years ago while only one seven feel they have more.

Even when people do interact with others outside of the workplace, it is more likely to be through a phone call or text message than traditional direct face-to-face contact, including seeing partners or family at home. And one in six people only experience social interaction with others once a week or less.

The findings emerge from polling carried out for “The Big Lunch”, a project to encourage neighbours to get together through events such as street parties, examining the idea of loneliness.

It follows warnings from ministers that Britain is facing an “epidemic” of loneliness, particularly among the elderly as people live longer than ever before while families are more spread out than ever.

But a series of studies have indicated that young people often feel loneliness more acutely than the older generation, despite being surrounded by friends.

Dr Rebecca Harris, a psychologist at the University of Bolton, who examined the results said: “Loneliness is far more complicated than people imagine. It’s often seen as a one dimensional state, either ‘lonely’ or ‘not lonely’ and that just isn’t the case. It can be a temporary state, but when prolonged, it’s a serious issue. Research shows that our brains treat loneliness in the same way as physical pain and it has been associated with poor mental and physical health, so it’s important that people take steps to overcome loneliness.”

From a Relational Thinking point of view we  talk about “Relational Lifestyle” which is all about how you spend your time: “Every decision we make will have relational consequences. Big decisions about how many hours you commute and where you live will impact on home and family life. But so will smaller decisions. For example, does using a microwave stagger individual mealtimes, or create more leisure for eating and talking?  In what ways do mobile phones help you maintain relationships, and in what ways do they interfere with important face-time?”‘



12 Dec

Tackling loneliness this Christmas

Loneliness Winter

CAMBRIDGE – For many of us Christmas season is the busiest time of the year, with plays, parties and dinners with friends, family and colleagues to attend. However, according to Age UK over half a million are alone during this ‘happiest season of all’. Most of them are elderly people. Where nearly a million over the age of 65 see close friends or family once a month or less, it is also the memories of past friends and Christmases that can increase the sense of isolation during the festive season.

There are a number of reasons why this large number of people spend Christmas alone. For example, populations are ageing, with the number of British citizen reaching the age of 65 predicted to rise to 19 million by 2050. There is also the increased relational breakdown in society. More people divorce, fewer children are born and fewer friends and families stay connected later in life. All this means that, many, particularly older people, have fewer family and friends to look after them.

Another major reason for the large-scale loneliness at Christmas is the lack of rootedness across society. With high mobility in society, many families are often dispersed across the country. This means that it is not always easy for them to get together around Christmas. Another consequence of the fact that people spend less time in one place, is that they do not get to know their neighbours well. Less time spent in a community means there is less time and opportunity for deep relationships to develop. Furthermore, because people are moving more frequently, there is actually less incentive to get to know your neighbours, because it is likely that they will only stay for a couple of years before moving on.

Many people now see it as the government’s role to look after the elderly. However, increased government spending can often reinforce the root problem: increased provision can be seen as relieving families and communities of an inconvenient responsibility. Western society has become very much a mass of individuals. And because of this individualism it becomes very easy to discard costly social relationships and duties. Recent research found that only 25% of British adults thought they had responsibility to keep in touch with older neighbours who might be lonely. People less and less consider themselves to have a duty to those who are relationally poor.

So as we invite people to our homes this Christmas, we might want to start thinking about what we can do and what lifestyle choices we can make to shorten the relational distance between us and our elderly and/or lonely neighbours and family. However, while this would have a positive impact on many people’s lives, it is only tackling the effects. If we want to do more than containment, then we must address the causes which revolve around structural and society wide issues. It is society as a whole that needs to become more relational.

For more thought on this and related ideas, check out our theme pages Relational Poverty and Relational Lifestyle.

09 Oct

How relationships impact economic outcomes


CAMBRIDGE – Lorna Zischka, a PhD Student in Economics at Reading University, has written a paper called ‘The Hidden Asset: How relationships impact economic outcomes’, where she argues that “Consideration for others as well as oneself also represents a more desirable basis than individualistic self-interest on which to found the development of society.”

In Relational Thinking, this is familiar territory.  See Dr Michael Schluter (together with Jonathan Rushworth and Paul Mills): After Capitalism: Rethinking Economic Partnerships and Transforming Capitalism from within: A relational approach to the purpose, performance and assessment of companies.

In her paper Zischka explains the need for consideration for others and how this provides a stronger basis for economic theory than individualistic self-interest. She writes:

“Greed is commonly perceived to be a factor precipitating the 2008 financial crisis. On the other hand, every textbook on neo-classical economics teaches that individuals pursuing their own private interests in a free-functioning market gives us the best possible allocation of resources and is a driving force for efficiency, implying that the pursuit of private gain will result in social good… This essay examines whether ‘self’ interest is an over-simplistic foundation for economic theory, and why paying more attention to the ‘other-centred’ interests that individuals might have is helpful. It suggests that relational drivers have a significant additional impact on human behaviour. Consideration for others as well as oneself also represents a more desirable basis than individualistic self-interest on which to found the development of society.”

The full version of Lorna Zischka’s paper can be found here: