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Relationships in 2014: Ours Is A Society That Could Use a Hug

She would be better off to start smoking again, because the interaction with other smokers in the designated break area would do her more good than the smoking would do her harm. — Doctor to the son of an 85 year-old resident at an Alzheimer facility.

In this New Year, ours is a society that could use a hug. It is hard to deny the importance of relationships. By any objective measure, the most compelling priority for this New Year is human relationships. According to an AARP survey, more than one third of adults over 45 report being chronically lonely, up 65 percent in the past decade. Loneliness now carries similar rates of mortality risk as smoking. Our whole concept of relationships is changing, and not just for the older crowd. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, laments this is “The first generation to grow up in a culture where being sexually intimate is understood to be disconnected from the context of a relationship.” So much for the relational term, “making love.” It’s been replaced by the insistently mechanical “hook-up.”

Not only are we more alone, but we are more separated by our distrust. According to the General Social Survey data just released, only a third of us say: “Most people can be trusted” compared to half in 1972. Similarly, Gallup reports that 70 percent of workers are disengaged at work.

Distrusted, disengaged, lonely — it is what you would expect from a society increasingly going it alone. We keep finding new ways to bypass human interaction, communicating and transacting more by email, text and tweets. Online sales Cyber Monday — following Thanksgiving — were up 36 percent, while in-person retail shopping was down 2.9 percent. We trend toward taking our information and transactions a la carte — hold the personal interactions.

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.

Relationship is our single richest source of value. According to Gallup, engaged customers yield businesses a premium of 23 percent in revenue growth and profits while disengaged customers suffer a 13 percent discount. Matt Lieberman’s new book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, reports that economists correlating financial and happiness data found that seeing a friend most days has the same impact on our happiness as earning a $100,000 more each year, and simply seeing your neighbors on a regular basis is like getting $60,000. Volunteering at least once a month is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. Conversely, getting a divorce is like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in salary.

It makes sense. Some research has suggested that never being married reduces wealth by 75 percent, and being married and then divorced reduces wealth by 73 percent compared to the continuously married. Building and retaining productive relationships yields a higher and more predictable ROI (return on investment) than most any business or personal initiative.

And “giving” relationships are even more powerful. The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey shows charitable givers are 43 percent likelier to say they are “very happy” than nongivers. Nongivers are 3.5 times more likely than givers to say they are “not happy at all.”

Yet our attitudes and behavior trend counter to this relationship reality. The American Freshman survey reports that in 1965 college freshman said that “starting a family” and “helping others” were more important life goals than being “very well off financially.” By the 1980s the priority had reversed and in 2012, freshmen prioritizing “being very well-off financially” reached a record high of 81 percent. Lieberman concludes: “The more individuals endorse materialism as a positive life value, the less happy they are with their lives.” Our relationship with money seems similar to our relationship with dieting — the more we talk about it and glamorize thinness, the fatter we as a nation become.

If health, wealth and happiness are not enough — how about being better looking? Dutch and British researchers report that women found men who were purported to give money to the poor more attractive — and the more they gave the more attractive they became.

We have not intended relationships atrophy. It has been the unintended consequence of advancements like technology where new-found control and convenience enables relational laziness and neglect. Relationships are the engine of health, wealth and happiness. Their absence disables. As Mother Teresa famously said, “The world’s great disease is not poverty, it is loneliness.”

Relationships necessitate sustained intention. Among family, friends, colleagues, customers, neighbors and in faith, who are your “go to” relationships — that warrant renewed and sustained initiative in 2014? Where will you target relationship turnaround: Replace neglect with attention, electronic messages with face-to-face interaction, denial with caring confrontation, costly avoidance with relational investment? The cashier’s t-shirt at the Potbelly Sandwich shop near me captured the urgency of our relational interdependence: “Get in here before we both starve.”

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