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

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

 

24 Jun

Social Capital: we’re nothing without it

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationships support, have launched a Best Medicine campaign “to put relationships at the heart of the NHS”. Their report details how “good quality relationships matter for our health and wellbeing and can improve health outcomes; but long-term health conditions can also have a significant impact on our relationships”. It goes on to argue that “it is important to ensure our relationships are resilient and robust if we are to draw on such relationships as assets to health and wellbeing.”

The evidence for the link between relationships and both physical and mental health is strong. Weak relationships can lead to unhealthy behaviour (for example substance abuse), whilst supportive relationships encourage health promoting behaviour, particularly for men (who are more likely see a doctor or change diet if encouraged to do so). Relationships also buffer stress with significant physiological benefits, whilst loneliness is known to damage health. A meta-analysis concluded that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death is greater than that of physical inactivity and obesity and comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol.

Relationships are also essential in the provision of care: 6.5 million people in the UK currently care unpaid for an ill, frail or disabled family member or friend. But 75% of carers were found by Carers UK to have difficulties in maintaining relationships and social networks due to the demands of caring. As one carer put it: “Friends have drifted away so I am exhausted from caring and have little support. I am becoming increasingly isolated and depressed.”

Over the last five years the Relationships Foundation has consistently argued for a more comprehensive family policy with clearly designated responsibility. Rather than it being seen as a narrow agenda around parenting, childcare and the funding of relationship support services, it needs to recognise how policy in all areas can both influence families and depend upon them. We’re therefore encouraged to see more relational approaches to policy being adopted across the political spectrum. The ConservativeHome website has just run a series on the family as the missing link in policy to promote ‘aspiration’ which quotes our assessment of the costs of relationship breakdown. Earlier in the year the Labour MP John Cruddas spoke at an event organised by the Relationships Alliance (of which Relate are a part). In referring to the problems that can be caused by weak relationships he concluded the:

“These problems aren’t a failure of public services or even the economy – though both these play their part. They are a failure of relationships. So we need to stop making policy as if grandparents, mothers, fathers and children exist in separate silos and not as part of a whole family. Throughout our lives we are dependent upon others for our wellbeing and sense of identity. Relationships give meaning to our lives. They bind us all together into society and give us our sense of belonging. We are literally nothing without them. …  We need government that helps create the conditions for families and people’s relationships to thrive.”

The Best Medicine campaign should therefore be seen as part of a wider movement to recognise the importance of our closest relationships, and the potential for many government departments to play a part in supporting them. Too often social capital, and particularly that which resides in families, is an invisible and neglected resource in policymaking. Relate make ten recommendations for ways in which relationships could be better addressed by the health system. These illustrate the kind of specific changes that are necessary of relational thinking is to turn into relational practice.

  1. The UK Secretary of State for Health becomes Secretary of State for Health and Wellbeing
  2. Couple, family and social relationships become a core part of the work of local Health and Wellbeing Boards
  3. Government establishes an inquiry into how relationships can be included in health policy frameworks, including outcomes frameworks
  4. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing commissions research into long term health conditions and relationships
  5. Public Health England establishes a National Health and Relationships Intelligence Network
  6. Directors of Public Health consider the best ways to gather data on the quality and stability of relationships to inform local authorities and commissioners
  7. Clinical Commissioning Groups and local authorities have a duty to undertake a ‘Family Test’ when considering new local policies and in the commissioning cycle
  8. Relationship support and impairment-specific charities partner to provide support
  9. Public Health England supports local authorities to embed plans to strengthen relationships and incorporate relationships into Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategies
  10. The Department for Work and Pensions pilots a local ‘family offer’ with a focus on health and wellbeing, particularly on the couple, family and social relationships of people with long term health conditions.
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