28 Oct

Giving increases wellbeing

Hands

Making time for people brings us happiness on the side. That’s what I wrote in my post on 20th Feb 2015, “In pursuit of happiness”. But just how powerful is this link? Are we really better off when we give into the lives of others? Are other people better off? Are we all as a community better off?

We can test it out by looking at data from the ‘Citizenship Survey.’ Over 38,000 people in England and Wales were interviewed face to face between 2007 and 2011. They were asked questions about their giving, and also about their community. The Citizenship Survey also included official statistics regarding the deprivation levels of every ward in which the people were interviewed. With this data then, we can make some credible assessments regarding whether giving behaviors in a region relate to how well those regions are doing (see fig.1).

Giving Charter - article Lorna Zischka

Fig1: The correlations between giving behaviors and community welfare (all correlations are statistically significant).

Key:Table LZThese diagrams give a flavor of just how closely giving behaviors are linked to community wellbeing. Firstly we see that giving and trust go together. ‘Giving’ sends a message of care for others, which is a trustworthy behavior and stimulates trust in others. Having said that, ‘giving’ and ‘trust’ are also mutually reinforcing and neither is likely to keep going for long without the other. Secondly we see how giving is linked to reduced deprivation. For a start giving is a way of counteracting deprivation and so people in giving/supportive networks are likely to be doing better than people without them. As before though, ‘giving’ and ‘low deprivation’ might also be mutually reinforcing; well situated people in a pleasant social environment are freed up to give.  (Source: Citizenship Survey data, 2008-2011. Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Supplied by the UK Data Archive. Calculations drawn from a paper presented by Zischka at ‘Relational Academics,’ September 2015, Cambridge.)

We can test the same trust and deprivation data against other variables that might potentially explain why welfare differs in different regions. Try for example average income, health, education, employment or ethnic mix – all of which are known to be important social variables affecting welfare. The data indicates that none of these could predict trust and deprivation quite as precisely as giving behaviors could. In other words, whether or not people ‘give’ is right up there with the very most important socio-economic indicators of wellbeing.

And these figures are just a start. Many other studies have been carried out to show that people who give time or money away to others actually feel better afterwards than those who spend that same time or money on their own private consumption. Personal consumption makes people feel good for the moment, but (unless that consumption is essential to life) the feeling does not last for long. However, small, repeated expenditures of time and money with or for other people stack up to a greater sense of wellbeing over time.

So why is this? What is it about giving that makes such a difference? The key is the link between giving and relationship. Relationships take time and money to build, and they won’t go far without a bit of give and take. Giving, when it comes down to it, is an indication that the giver is including other people in the decisions they make over the way they spend their time and money, and it’s this consideration for others that comprises the heart of relationship. To turn this around, we can tell how good a relationship is by whether or not a person is putting time and money into others instead of spending exclusively on him or herself. Good relationships and giving people go with better outcomes for the community. Note that giving does not guarantee a return to the giver, and to expect one is to miss the point, but we can see that our giving makes the world a little bit better for someone else. This leaves the eternal question of priorities for every individual to grapple with: what really matters to me, me or us? We shouldn’t just be looking at what we get out of the system – let’s also measure what we put into it!

By Lorna Zischka

 

08 Jul

Why money can’t buy well-being

friendship

Iceland. A nation of geysers, vulcanoes, its people and financial systems shaken up by a banking crisis and with very satisfied people. At least, according to a study by the UK based Office for National Statistics (ONS) into the general well-being of countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It’s an interesting study that once more underlines that it’s not all about the money. It cannot buy happiness or life satisfaction.

The report underlines this by highlighting that although all OECD countries have experienced an increase per capita since the economic crisis set in, “life satisfaction scores have not recovered to pre-economic downturn levels for more than half of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries”. This includes the UK that saw a nearly 5% increase in GDP per capita but not more satisfied people between 2007 and 2014.

The idea that prosperity and money were intrinsically connected came up after WWII and while the world worked in its recovery, it held true. Until in the 60s when other voices started questioning this proposition, as they were calling for other things to be valued such as human rights and the environment. This ‘change of mindset’  is captured in a well-known quote from Robert F. Kennedy from his speech at the university of Kansas in 1968:

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Although not immediately recognized, Kennedy had a point Harvard Business Review says in an article called “The Economics of Wellbeing”: “It gives succinct voice to almost all the major criticisms of GDP. The three main strands have been these: (1) GDP is, even on its own terms, a faulty measure; (2) it takes no account of sustainability or durability; and (3) progress and development can be better gauged with other metrics.” The last point has especially received support since his 1968 speech. Especially from those involved in the field of behavioral economics and the psychological research connected to it.

But where money cannot buy happiness or life satisfaction, it can help to create and sustain it through things like the delivery of services, access to good education and health care. The long queues in front of the banks in Greece and panicking pensioners, not knowing whether they will receive their pension this month, is a very current and clear illustration of this.

Checking in: How are you doing? 

The ONS compiled and organized data from different countries in a range of areas, from education to health and from employment to relationships. Regarding the latter the OECD is quoted as saying that “beyond the intrinsic pleasure that people derive from spending time with others, social connections have positive spill-over effects for individual and societal well-being. People with extensive and supportive networks have better health, tend to live longer, and are more likely to be employed”.

In the area of relationships/social networks the ONS gathered data around three questions:

  1. All things considered, how satisfied are you with your family life? A) Completely satisfied; B) Very satisfied; C) fairly satisfied.
  2. How satisfied, on a scale from 1 (being the lowest) – 10 (being the highest), are you with your social life?
  3. Who would give you support if you needed advice about a serious personal or family matter?

Why don’t you let us know how you score on these three points by emailing us at office@relationalresearch.org? In a few weeks’ time we will then report the results and give a ‘real time’ idea of how Relational Thinkers score when it comes to their relationships. Of course we’ll handle every contribution on the basis of anonymity.

05 May

Do relationships matter in the election?

Polling_station_6_may_2010

CAMBRIDGE – In two days time, the people of the United Kingdom head to the polls to vote in the general election. The election has, understandably, dominated the media over the last few months. The newspapers and airwaves have been full of politicians and parties making promises about what they will do should they be elected on May 7th. Whether it is pay rises, taxes or economic stability, the promises that have been made, in the hope of securing votes, have been around issues of finance. Judging by the way it has dominated political discourse, it is the issue that politicians see as the most important issues for the British electorate.

These issues are all incredibly important, but missing has been any real discussion about the things that matter most: relationships. Indeed, material wealth is a poor indicator of true well-being. Surveys and studies repeatedly show that it is our relationships with those closest to us that we believe makes life worth living. Pledges focused entirely on financial matters reduce people to merely financial beings, when of course we are more than that.

In the interview below, Michael Schluter, the founder of the Relational Thinking Network, talks about the importance of relationships in life in general and specifically their importance in business. The interview took place in 2010 for ABC radio’s ‘Life Matters’ program. The book referred to is The Relational Manager, and can be purchased from us here.

Image: “Polling station 6 may 2010″ by secretlondon123 – originally posted to Flickr as Polling station

07 Apr

International day of happiness

international day of happiness

March 20th may have completely passed you by as an ordinary Friday. However, it was the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness.

On the campaign’s website it says:

After years of happiness research, one thing has proved fundamental – the importance of our connections with other people.

But modern societies are built as if the opposite was true. We are surrounded by people, yet we feel genuinely connected to almost none of them. The effects are devastating.

Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking; and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity.

We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection. For the International Day of Happiness, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

This campaign rightly recognises that our relationships with others are fundamental. Yet we are so slow to do anything about this. Author Robert Hall writes: “Recent studies jar us with how important relationships are to our health, wealth and happiness. We are all in the relationship business and by any standard, business is not good — ours is a relationship recession if not depression.”

So if our relationships are fundamental to wellbeing and flourishing, if they are the most important thing to us, then we need to prioritise them in all areas of life. If they are essential for happiness, then we need to take action to strengthen our relationships and focus on others instead of a materialistic pursuit of goods.

In a previous blog on our website, Lorna Zischka writes:

We’ve seen how important relationships between people are to human flourishing, and we can discover in study after study that giving people (people putting resources into relationships) tend to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than those who just spend their money on themselves. So maybe instead of asking ourselves how happy we are, we should be asking ourselves what we are doing for others, to make them happy. That is the question that matters for a flourishing society”

03 Apr

Cost of Family Failure in the UK: £47 billion and still rising

Family

On Valentine’s Day the Relationships Foundation, one of our member organisations, released its updated Cost of Family Failure Index in the UK, and can announce that family breakdown now costs the UK taxpayer £47bn per year. That’s £1,546 per taxpayer! However, the Index doesn’t even begin to take into account the often intense pain and suffering felt by those experiencing family failure – the broken hearts and the broken dreams. But it does show that family breakdown not only has this terrible human cost in terms of the emotional toll on all members of the family, but also an enormous financial cost to society as the taxpayer picks up the pieces.

Commenting on the figures, the Relationships Foundation’s Executive Director, Michael Trend, said:

“In the past year the government made some progress by introducing a Family Test of policy, which we welcomed, but which – especially in an election year – needs to be promoted and protected with vigour. The fact remains that the cost of family failure remains much too high.

“Our view is that if you sideline family policy you court systemic failure. If we as a country want to see real progress in improving wellbeing, increasing children’s life chances, higher educational attainment, less crime and reduced welfare dependency we need to take what this Index is telling us seriously. All political parties need a long term strategy to support the modern family.”

Only when people begin to take this cost seriously will they recognise how important relationships are to general wellbeing and happiness.

The full report can be read here.

20 Feb

In pursuit of happiness

beach 2
By Lorna Zischka

All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?

1=very satisfied
2=fairly satisfied
3=neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
4=fairly dissatisfied
5=very dissatisfied

Life-satisfaction or ‘happiness’ questions like this one are becoming increasingly popular in surveys of public life. This is because of the suspicion that the standard, materialistic measures of welfare (GDP/income levels) don’t necessarily deliver a better life.  The logic goes that if money isn’t making us happy, why measure it as an indicator of wellbeing? Why not measure happiness directly? This sounds fair enough on one hand, unless of course happiness indicators generate their own problems in misdirecting our attentions…? In seeking answers on these issues, let’s start with income measures of wellbeing.

It certainly seems to be the case that although buying more ‘stuff’ can give us a short-term happiness boost, the feeling does not last. Research suggests that our expectations quickly adjust to our new status, and then we are left feeling no better-off than before… until the next input boost of ‘stuff’ that is, which is to put us onto a kind of materialistic treadmill. This isn’t the only complication: we can easily get so that more ‘stuff’ only makes me happy if my stuff is at least as good as or better than that of my peers. And since they probably feel the same, we all end up in a ‘stuff’ competition and are unable to feel content with the things we have if others around us have more. Some people are even driven to borrowing in order to keep up, so that today the heaviest consumer countries in the world are the ones where private borrowing levels are highest; it is not people in the neediest countries that have the biggest debts! Despite all the effort and sacrifice put into the accumulation of goods, life-satisfaction levels are dropping fastest in the most consumeristic societies! Once a country is outside the bounds of real deprivation (around only US$15,000/year income on average), there is no relationship whatsoever between that country’s average income and the average happiness of its population. A race for more ‘stuff’ doesn’t seem to be the way to happiness – not only because it doesn’t do the job efficiently, but also because its pursuit destroys the planets resources and is becoming increasingly unsustainable as a collective lifestyle. So then, what does lead to happiness?

Ask the average Brit and nearly 60% of respondents will mention some kind of relational connection as being most important to happiness – family first and also friends. No other factor comes even close. Health, the next biggest factor gets a mention by only 24% of respondents. Financial security and living conditions get far less mentions. (fig.1)

 

pie chart updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig.1: Factors influencing subjective wellbeing
Source: Sustainable Development Commission, 2009

This gut reaction is backed up by plenty of evidence. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) came up with ‘five ways to wellbeing,’ which are a distillation of masses of evidence on what matters to happiness (fig.2).

Flowchart

Fig.2 Five ways to wellbeing.

Source: New Economics Foundation

Of the five factors, two are directly oriented to other people, giving and connections. And these two are also linked to one another – connections for example depend on giving time to people!

The relationships we have with others are certainly good for our own sense of wellbeing, but there are wider implications also. We live in an interconnected society and we could not even have a functioning economy without trustworthy interactions between people. When rules are fair, enforceable and where opportunistic people are not constantly trying to find loopholes, trust can flourish and with it, our ability to collaborate.  Collaboration is vital to our productivity, since our joint outcomes when we work together, each doing what we do best, is far greater than the sum of what we could achieve as separate individuals. Mutually beneficial and supportive relationships make us more secure too. What goes around comes around, and since we are not being capable of independence and self-sufficiency at all times, we do better in connected communities where we help one another out.

Having said all that, how did you feel when you first read the ‘happiness’ question at the beginning? Does the whole question of ‘increasing happiness’ turn your thoughts turn inward (what I need to make me happy) or outward (how can we make the world a happier place)? If your thoughts turned inward, it suggests there might be a flaw in ‘happiness measures.’

The psychologist Carol Ryff offers perhaps a more profound definition of happiness based on the ancient concept of Eudaimonia or ‘flourishing’. Eudaimonia emphasises ideals of belonging and benefiting others as one part of the big wellbeing mix; a concept which again enshrines the importance of relationships between people. Ryff pinpoints six items which are found to improve psychological wellbeing:

–          Autonomy
–          Personal growth
–          Self-acceptance
–          Purpose in life
–          Environmental mastery
–          Positive relations with other

So whilst a hedonistic approach to happiness might seek whatever maximizes my own personal pleasure for the moment, Eudaimonia emphasises wholeness as a person and within a society. Thus whilst a hedonist might value extra material goods or free sex or lying one’s way out of trouble because of the pleasure it maximises and the pain it avoids, Eudaimonia puts these things into the context of environmental damage or family break-up or a loss of trust in society. So some individual ‘good’ in the short term might have to be renounced for something of greater (and maybe communal) value in the long term. Enter then the concept of virtue. Virtue is about moral ‘goodness’. Wikipedia says in its definition, ‘personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness’. Those exercising virtue contribute to a happier society.

There is an odd thing about virtues however. Researchers find that although virtues are instrumental in improving the wellbeing of society, they have to be exercised for their own sake. If the goal of a person is happiness, that person probably won’t find happiness by trying to be virtuous. However, if that same person loves virtue and is virtuous for its own sake, then they are almost certain to find happiness as a side-effect!

We’ve seen how important relationships between people are to human flourishing, and we can discover in study after study that giving people (people putting resources into relationships) tend to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than those who just spend their money on themselves. So maybe instead of asking ourselves how happy we are, we should be asking ourselves what we are doing for others, to make them happy. That is the question that matters for a flourishing society!!

Lorna Zischka is a PhD student in Economics at Reading University.

Image by Sias van Schalkwyk