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May 25, 2023 | by Ingrid Abreu Scherer / Nancy Hey

Exploring family wellbeing

Evidence shows relationships matter. Our partner relationship is the second biggest driver of overall life satisfaction, while having someone to rely on in times of trouble is the top driver of difference between high and low wellbeing countries.  

Between individual and community connections sits the family unit, supporting learning, security and connection. Yet there remains less focus on the role of family wellbeing.

In response to the recent Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households, Love Matters report we explore the value of close relationships and what we can learn about improving wellbeing by focusing on family as a whole. 

The Commission’s report focuses on the importance of families in helping people cope with society’s changes and challenges – the ‘protective effect’ – stressing that “loving families are critical to the wellbeing of adults and children”.

Families are the bridge between individuals and society, and play a crucial early role in the determinants of wellbeing of people, communities and nations. For example:

  • The best predictor of an adult’s life satisfaction is their emotional health as a child, in part determined by the mental health of the mother.
  • Being partnered is one of the main determinants of adult wellbeing.
  • A key factor in explaining wellbeing differences between nations is whether people have someone to rely on.
  • Prosocial behaviours and attitudes – kindness, reciprocity, fairness, trust, civic participation, conflict resolution – are most commonly learned by children in the family.

In all these cases, there has been a historical focus on either individual or community wellbeing – with the family itself notable by its absence in research. Families are crucial in supporting and driving wellbeing at these levels, yet are not usually considered as the unit of analysis. Common areas of research look at either the individual wellbeing of children or adults, or the impacts of parents and their relationship on children’s wellbeing. These are valuable perspectives, but there is a gap in research in considering the wellbeing impact of the family unit overall.

What more can we learn if we focus on families as a whole, more than the sum of their parts?

Considering family wellbeing

Looking at family wellbeing may:

  • Give us crucial insights into the role of intergenerational relationships.
  • Support us in starting to unpack the distinction between social and emotional loneliness in mothers.
  • Help us understand and value family relationships in terms of adults as well as child outcomes.
  • Allow us to focus on the effects of caring responsibilities in the “sandwich generation” – those who look after both children and elderly relatives. 
  • Explore the effects of gender power dynamics or external economic pressures on the whole family, applying an inequality model.

We can use these insights to design better services and targeted support.

So what does the wellbeing of the family itself look like, and how can we measure it?

Measuring family wellbeing

The Archbishops’ Commission report talks about “valuing families in all their diversity”, in order to recognise that relationships are important to everyone. 

In measurement and analysis, we should consider the value of all types of family units and maintain a broad conceptualisation of this level of social connection.

Family wellbeing is likely to encompass a number of dimensions, for example physical and mental health, relationships, financial and housing security, connections to wider society, and the personal wellbeing of individual members. Good family wellbeing can be understood as having a balanced combination of these aspects, being resilient to changes in these dimensions, and ensuring that all individuals can benefit and contribute to the wellbeing of the family.

Having distinct dimensions can help policy makers maximise the protective effect of family and target support to those aspects of family life that pose a risk to wellbeing – such as relationship breakdown, unemployment, illness, or changes in economic circumstances. It can also help practitioners provide services which build on those elements that are working, while supporting families where they struggle.

A review of concepts and measures in use is a necessary first step in bringing together meaningful evidence on family wellbeing. 

Get in touch if you’re working on exploring family wellbeing further, in particular how people measure and consider the wellbeing of the family unit itself. 


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