Relational Welfare: Why our relationships matter


You may say its common sense that good relationships result in a good life, writes Matt Bird. Now, there is evidence that the better a persons family, friends and social relationships, the happier they will be, the better their physical and mental health, general wellbeing and length of life.

A study commissioned by Harvard University in 1938 began following 268 undergraduate students, to learn about human flourishing. It evidence shows that happiness and health aren’t a result of wealth, fame or working hard, but come instead from our relationships. Contrastingly, 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” (Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B. & Layton, J.B. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review).

The Troubled Families programme is a UK Government scheme, which aims to help 120,000 troubled families turn their lives around. The programme was initiated to change repeating generational patterns, and in particular focus on getting children back into school, reducing youth crime and anti-social behaviour, putting adults on a path back to work, and so reducing the high costs these families place on the public sector employees each year. At the heart of this programme is the appointment of a family worker to each family, who will walk with them on their journey to a better place. The lives of these families are often chaotic, so adding social interventions from multiple government agencies has been shown not to deliver the desired outcomes. Thus, the role of family worker is to provide a stabilising and guiding relationship in the life of the family.

The central role of relationships was also highlighted at a recent social housing conference. You might imagine the agenda to be about bricks and mortar, transitioning clients to their own housing or managing addictions, but no. The agenda was all about relationships, and how building healthy relationships turns lives around. This emphasis is increasingly prominent in the voluntary and faith sector.

The Cinnamon Network helps churches to build strong relationships with their communities. It provides community development advice, a menu of best practice community projects, micro-grant funding, leadership training for volunteers, and support on building civic relationships. Their recent Cinnamon Faith Action Audit provides evidence that the value of the time given to their communities by churches and other faith groups is worth more than £3billion per annum. Speaking at the launch of this report, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said, “This is provision wrapped in love,” namely that at the heart of these acts of service was a relationship of love and care.

A recent report by The Mental Health Foundation states that: ‘As a society and as individuals, we must urgently prioritise investing in building and maintaining good relationships and tackling the barriers to forming them. Failing to do so is equivalent to turning a blind eye to the impact of smoking and obesity on our health and wellbeing.’

For some time, one of the primary metrics of police performance has been public confidence. How confident are the public about safety in their homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces and as they travel? One of the most powerful ways that the police build public confidence is by positively engaging with people – it’s as simple as looking at people, smiling and saying hello. Rather than standing in pairs talking to each other and only ever looking up when they are suspicious about something. Good policing is the result of good relationships.

So whatever the area of human wellbeing and welfare, good relationships are the key.

All the effective wellbeing and welfare interventions that I have seen are relationship centred. Those who benefit may be helped in practical ways, but when asked what made the difference, they always name the person who cared for them.

I believe that our society needs to invest more time, energy and resources in relationships, becoming less selfish and more self-giving. Remove the barriers to build relationships across gender, age, race, class, faith and any other differences that might get in the way of building relationships for a better world.

Matt Bird is the founder of Relationology, a unique approach to achieving business growth through the power of relationships. He is an international keynote speaker and author of Relationology 101.