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Ask what matters in life and almost certainly, somewhere along the line, people will mention their relationships with others. Relationships with our immediate family or partner make an enormous difference to our quality of life. Also workplace relations, how well we get on with friends and neighbours and even the nature of our interactions with strangers. Each of these relationships has its own character, which affects the way that we treat others and the way that they treat us. Fractious relations or being disconnected altogether make us feel unhappy, vulnerable and trapped by our needs, whilst harmonious relationships not only make us feel better, they are empowering and enhance our achievements; people who cooperate with one another can achieve a great deal more than those who do not.

The importance of interpersonal relations is generally acknowledged by governments and policy makers, but here we run into problems. How can we account for this relational component in the whole ‘quality of life’ mix? How much of it do we have? How much difference does it make? And how exactly can a fragmented community become more cohesive and cooperative? Interpersonal relationships are so complex that their contribution to quality of life risks being overlooked in favour of tangible material assets whose metrics can be more readily agreed upon. But in overlooking the relational factor we may end up pursuing a course of action corrosive to the quality of society without even being aware of it. This is why this book seeks more clarity in our understanding of relationships, bringing together insights from multiple strands of the social science literature.

The key to the investigation comprises an attempt to measure the quality of informal relationships between people, simply because measurement improves our understanding of the subject. The more precisely we can measure relational health, the more certain we can be about whether a particular behaviour or policy intervention affects it positively or negatively, and in this way, measurement helps to focus our attention on things that matter. A measure helps us towards a tangible definition, an understanding of cause and effect, and will perhaps enlighten efforts towards social enrichment.

Relationships between people are highly complex and context specific, but the resources that flow from them are easier to measure, and could be a good place to start. This book builds a case for discerning the quality of interpersonal relationships from the resources that people chose to allocate to others (or in company with others) instead of spending exclusively on themselves. If an individual gives his or her own time and money away in the interests of another person, it could be an indicator of a prosocial connection between those persons (‘prosocial’ meaning the type of connection that draws people together and fosters collaboration).

Chapter 1 starts by addressing why we should be concerned with interpersonal relationships. Chapter 2 introduces the concept of ‘social capital’ and the attempts already made by scholars to measure and understand relationships. Chapter 3 connects the social capital literature to the giving/generosity literature, shedding new light on both subjects. Based on these findings, a model is pulled together of how an individual’s decision to ‘give’ might interact with cohesive relationships in the wider social environment, and the following chapters test this conceptual framework.

Each part of the model is tested through the analysis of large UK databases (Chapters 4, 5 and 6), and also through the use of a lab experiment (Chapter 7). The results highlight the links between positive relational connections, giving and quality-of-life. Whether people give indicates the existence of prosocial (pro-cohesive) attitudes, and who people give to indicates how widely those prosocial attitudes extend. These prosocial attitudes depend not only on altruism, but also on social pressures, on incentives for reciprocal return, and on interests related to maintaining the welfare of one’s identity group. These mixed motivations can all lead to prosocial behaviours like giving, and ‘giving’ is closely linked to a preferable social environment.

Within Britain, areas in which a high percentage of people ‘give’ are found to be more trusting, less deprived, and less impacted by crime. Worldwide, giving people are thriving people. Giving people (representative of people in giving networks) were not only better off in all these ways than non-givers; their welfare also increased over time relative to non-givers. It turns out that ‘giving’ predicts community health better than incomes do.

A study of cause and effect revealed two overarching aspects to a ‘giving’ relationship: (1) trust in other people to act in a prosocial manner (a factor which is highly dependent on communal norms and institutions); and (2) a person’s own personal attitude towards others. A person’s attitude was certainly influenced by their social environment (that is, by their trust in others), but an individual could also act for the good or bad of others independently of trust; their prosocial actions could rise above (or sink below) the prosocial signals being sent out by the wider social environment. The personal choice of action taken by each individual fed back into the wider social environment in some small way and even influenced the choices that other people made too. Thus, through a process of response and counter-response as people interact, the welfare of the whole community could evolve. Prosocial motivations in this scenario play a significant role in how relationships develop over time.

These findings are important, since giving behaviours have often been regarded as a side-effect of a cohesive relational environment that has been created mostly by putting the right institutions in place. This work suggests that giving people have a much more central role to play, being instrumental in the development of social cohesion, not merely passive products of it. Their willingness to react to the needs and interests of others helps to bring communities together, building positive relationships and enabling people to work together more effectively.

Most of our welfare measures fail to capture or even acknowledge these relational assets and their manifestation in outward looking, giving behaviours. Instead they focus on indicators of welfare such as ‘how good I feel’ or ‘how much money I have’. Important though these measures may be, their self-serving focus needs to be balanced by attention to relational matters. Otherwise the evidence would suggest that our very thought patterns become more individualistic in nature, a trend which is ultimately detrimental to social cohesion and all its benefits. We would do well therefore to start asking ourselves what we give as well as what we get, affirming behaviours that draw people together, validating the work of investors in people, and adjusting policy as we learn which interventions foster and which depress the inclination to give. This book shows that our decisions regarding ‘giving’ have consequences for social cohesion that should not be overlooked.