Are relationships good for you?

The Mental Health Foundation have released a report (see it 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.


Tackling loneliness this Christmas

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.