Articles 3. Relationships should be at the heart of well-being

3. Relationships should be at the heart of well-being

What drives well-being? Sam Smethers argues that relationships are the key to our well-being and interventions must focus on this if they are to help their clients cope with the challenges they face. Current research focuses on couple relationships, a What Works Centre for Well-being could help collect data on other types of relationships and help to deepen our understanding of their impact on people’s well-being.

The essence of modern living is quality of life. We don’t just want to live longer; we want to live healthier, longer lives. We don’t just want to define ourselves in terms of our work but also how we spend time with our families or our leisure time. Increasingly monetary measures simply do not fully reflect the things that really matter to us and define our lives.

The Office for National Statistics has begun to collect data on the nation’s well-being and the Commission on Well-being and Policy is proposing that government should make policy which enhances the nation’s well-being. That would be wonderful to see. Perhaps then the spare room subsidy and the imposition of zero hours jobs on the unemployed would be rather more difficult to justify? We may have a way to go on that front.

Drivers of well-being: what’s the hierarchy?

The Commission categorises drivers of well-being as either economic, social or personal. Measures include unemployment, family life, and mental health. But are some indicators more important than others? For example, should we consider relationships alongside other factors or should we be looking at their interconnectedness and treating relationships as the foundation stone to everything else?

Is there a hierarchy that we are missing? Do good relationships effectively mitigate against negative experiences elsewhere? Is it possible to improve the well-being of others while experiencing poor well-being yourself? For us, relationships are key and need to be given due weight in the well-being debate.

Evidence that relationships are the key to well-being

Evidence suggests that this is true for the estimated 300,000 children who cannot live with their parents and who are being brought up by up to 200,000 grandparents or wider family carers. Firstly, research shows that children living with wider family generally do well, better than children in the care system.  Yet their prior adverse experiences are very similar (parental alcohol or drug misuse, abuse or neglect, disability or mental or physical ill health, imprisonment or bereavement). Their carers are likely to be living in poverty, half give up work when they take on the care of a child. But the continuity, stability and love they offer is key and more than offsets the other negative circumstances.

Yet while the children do well, the carers’ well-being suffers. In one study two thirds showed signs of clinical depression. Grandparents Plus’ annual survey regularly find 7 in 10 are stressed, depressed or isolated. The effect of taking on the care of a child, often in difficult circumstances, affects their relationship with their partner. It displaces other relationships in the family and can cause conflict. It often means they lose their friends as well as lose their job. Yet they remain committed to the children and so often they won’t give up even when it becomes extremely difficult for them.

Well-being interventions: providing emotional central heating

There are many policy and practice changes we want to see which would give carers in this situation a better deal. But we have to persuade others to change in order to do that. A focus on improving well-being means we can also do something to help individuals by addressing their personal relationships and social isolation. The Relative Experience project offers trained befriending and providing peer support, which is evaluated using self-reporting and measuring progress on a well-being scale means we can help them to change their lives. So far we have seen carers grow in resilience, confidence and life-satisfaction as a result of providing an active listening, befriending model.

So even if nothing else changes they will be better able to cope. But also better able to take steps to make changes in their lives, such as addressing a child’s behavioural problems, asking for support or getting a job which will then improve their economic, social and personal well-being. With a relatively small, low cost intervention we are connecting and improving personal, interpersonal and societal outcomes.

I like to call it providing emotional central heating and weather proof clothing. We haven’t managed to change the weather yet but we can at least ensure the carers we work with are better equipped for it.

How a well-being centre could help: collecting longitudinal data on the effect of relationships on well-being

A What Works Centre for Well-being could help our work by collecting some longitudinal data which considers the importance of an individual’s relationships on their wellbeing. And not just couple relationships but intergenerational ones.

For understandable reasons the relationship sector is firmly focussed on couples yet we know that we all have other important relationships in our lives. I would argue that we (public policy/government) don’t understand or value the importance of those other relationships yet if we as individuals were to reflect on say the top 5 relationships in our lives I bet at least one would be with a grandparent/grandchild.

For example, how important is it for older people who are grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren? What difference does it make to their ageing experience, their likelihood of developing dementia and so on? We don’t have any hard evidence on that which tracks people over time.

I would also add that if we really value and understand relationships and wellbeing then we would make policy differently and we would make different policies. Now if the What Works Centre for Well-being could deliver that – that would be a real achievement!

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Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.