Why the Answer to our Happiness Lies in our Connections

26/07/2011 11:48 BST | Updated 25/09/2011 10:12 BST

The Government's interest in our well-being with its introduction of a happiness index is a welcome development. But isn't it just common sense? If we help people to build positive connections and to flourish in their relationships then our society will be much better off emotionally, physically and, I dare say, financially.

I was talking to a great friend of mine the other day (I'll call her Katherine to spare her blushes). She is an 84-year-old widow who lives on her own. That could be a recipe for loneliness and isolation, but not for Katherine. She has two supportive sons, a great daughter in-law, two lovely grandchildren and more good friends than many people half her age. She has friends of all ages and is interested and involved in their lives. She is an active member of her local church and walks the two miles there and back most days to go and volunteer (despite the pain she experiences in her legs). She goes to 'keep fit' class once a week and loves learning - whether it is how to use her computer, keeping up with the news or reading her Bible. And her strong faith gives her a reason to embrace and not fear the thought of death.

But life isn't like that for many people of Katherine's age. There are plenty of elderly people in our society who live alone, with only their TV for company. Too frightened to go out, they stay shut away in the prison of their own home. They may not see a friend or family member for weeks on end. Days and days may pass without them feeling the touch of another human or hearing the voice of a loved one. Some may not have family living nearby and others may have no family at all. There is no one else to whom they can give attention and reach out to. They are left with nothing to focus on other than their own thoughts and fears.

It is depressing to think that there are people living like that in our society. More depressing still is to think what life will be like for the elderly in forty or fifty years time if we carry on as we are now. The institutions, connections and social networks which were once taken for granted - religious or political affiliation; membership of trade unions, clubs or teams; support for charities and voluntary organisations; and community involvement - have all dramatically weakened over the last few decades and continue to do so.

Greater social mobility means that more people are moving away from their original neighbourhood, family and friends. Those who move to cities often find themselves living next door to people whose names they never know. Grandchildren and close family may live miles away or even in another country. With increasing family breakdown, more and more people will find themselves estranged from family members and living on their own. With jobs for life a rarity, and as freelance, home-working and shift work become more prevalent, work connections will also become weaker.

In many ways developments in technology will continue to help keep us connected. But unless Facebook friends (or whatever the equivalent will be in forty years' time) are also friends in the flesh and live nearby they will be little actual use when we are crave intimacy or feel lonely, ill or frail.

So, how can we create a different vision for the future of our society? A society where people are not increasingly disconnected but are living interdependently with each other, supporting, caring and watching out for each other?

We can hope that those with power in our society take seriously the need to invest in social capital and lead by example. We can hope that they do implement well-being policies: that support rather than erode the strength of families; that encourage strong neighbourhoods and communities; that reward social investment as much as, or more than, capital investment; that enable children to grow up in loving environments where they learn how to relate and to think of others; that help single parents, the orphaned, the widowed and the marginalised to find support and strong connections; and that promote marriage and help couples build lifelong committed relationships.

We can hope that they encourage any or all of those things, but even if they don't or won't we can still help to turn the tide ourselves....even it is just one relationship at a time.