This anonymous essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest and published with the author's permission.

If you're seeing this in summer 2022, we'll be posting many submissions in a short period. If you want to stop seeing them so often, apply a filter for the appropriate tag!

 

Open Philanthropy should look into allocating funding to interventions that improve the quality of long-term relationships. Not only would these improvements elevate the subjective well-being of many people alive right now as well as for years to come (such as humans in the long-run future), but they would also serve to have many knock-on effects, such as creating good values and encouraging the benevolence of AI, and creating good global governance and cooperation and in turn lowering the risk of nuclear or biosecurity threats.

Due to the way society perceives well-being and the difficulty to gather data about this issue, as well as a lack of high-quality long-term relationships disproportionately affecting certain minority groups of people, there has been a lack of research on this, in the same way that gender discrimination has largely been ignored by the EA community until recently.[1]

This issue has long been stigmatized in our society. Interpersonal relationships (both romantic and platonic) have long been seen as a private matter, where the control, and therefore responsibility, is given to individuals to manage. If someone has a happy marriage and a life full of strong, healthy, long-term relationships, we often accredit that success to them and only them. Meanwhile, if someone lacks meaningful relationships and feels lonely, it is due, many think, to that person’s inability to make friends or maintain relationships.

In reality, however, a lack of long-term relationships can be seen as a structural issue, just like gender discrimination, with structual solutions. Outside interventions can actually make a dent in the quality of relationships, and in turn, the subjective well-being of individuals. These interventions can be as simple as individual counseling or relationship counseling, or as broadbrush as cohort-based youth programs, or social welfare programs to tackle loneliness.

This issue has the potential to score well on the ITN framework and should be explored further.

Importance:

            Long-term relationships are salient in both developed and developing nation contexts. In this day and age, it affects all 7.9 billion people[2]  on earth. This is not to mention the trillions of future lives we expect there to be.[3] The number of friendships that each individual, on average, has can be up to 150, according to Dunbar’s number.[4] In our closest circles, people have around 50 close friends, 15 confidants, and a group of 5 best friends. Thus, the number of meaningful relationships that can be affected is extremely high.

            These relationships, in turn, have a strong role in determining the well-being and quality of life of the people in them. The friendships we choose have strong influences on our behavior change: if our friends or significant others pursue higher education or start businesses, we are likely to as well; on the other hand, if they become addicted to drugs, we are likely to as well.[5] Thus, if we care about life outcomes and happiness, the quality of our relationships is worth investing in.

According to a recent study, friendships between rich and poor people were instrumental in lifting the poorer out of poverty.[6] If this holds, then not only do friendships affect subjective well-being, but they very tangibly also affect incomes directly and in turn DALYs/QALYs, a measure that could ensure that interventions related to improving long-term relationships could be more effective than cash transfers.

The length of relationships matter as well, as they have the potential of improving lives in a large way. Studies have shown that friendships that last over 7 years are much more likely to be stronger. In addition, good long-term relationships can have a positive impact on lifespan and longevity, allowing for more DALYs as well as allowing for humanity to progress.[7]

In addition, improving long-term relationships is likely to have other knock-on effects, even from a longtermist perspective. In the quest for AI safety and AI alignment, we must focus on avoiding value lock-in and training AI toward benevolent behavior. Modeling long-term relationships could positively influence the development of AGI.

Long-term relationships can also create more empathy in people, leading to better governance. This is particularly the case with cross-cultural relationships. Understanding and building bridges between cultures is likely to have 

Tractability:

            There is still much room for improvement in the quality of long-term relationships. For example, the divorce rates among married couples remains at 14.9%, though this has fluctuated quite a bit, with it being 22.6% in 1980.[8] This seems to suggest that the quality of relationships can be affected by societal values and interventions.

Potential interventions include:

We can fund summer camps for children to create cross-class friendships. Hopefully, these will become long-standing relationships that will influence the children in positive ways for years to come.

We can advocate for the desegregation in schools, which would help create cross-class friendships as well.

We can fund social activities and after-school programs for youth in cohort-based programs to develop long-term relationships with a group of peers outside the classroom setting.

We can create social welfare programs to tackle loneliness, potentially funded by the government. This would be likely to help groups like the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled, the unemployed, and the elderly the most.

We can research marriage and family counseling done in an evidence-based manner, as well as subsidize it to incentivize people to use it.

We can create incentives for people to move to new places or stay in places where they can develop long-term relationships. This can be done through housing policy, immigration policy, urban planning, and labor market policy. An example of such a policy would be Singapore’s policies, in which it is much more favorable for you to get a home if you are married.

We can create better infrastructures in industries for people to explore relationships. Currently many industries have bad work-life balance as well as geographical inflexibility. This would mean that people in demanding and impactful jobs in government or in academia for example, have the time and the geographical freedom to invest in their relationships.

We can enable technology that helps us with our long-term relationships, whether that be communication tools, wellness and counseling apps, or better optimization on dating apps.

We can do philosophical research about the intrinsic value of relationships on the normative level rather than just the empirical level.

Neglectedness:

People are also very unequally affected by this problem; therefore, it has been neglected in that people who do have healthy long-term relationships are not incentivized to study the issue.

While there is existing psychology and sociology research available, like the ones I cite, there is not as much research on the affect of relationships on DALYs and QALYs as well as subjective well-being from an EA standpoint. In addition, while social programs and interventions like counseling do exist, they are not done in a particularly evidence-based or effective way. Investigating how to conduct these interventions in a cost-effective or high-leverage manner could be low-hanging fruit for the community.

Sources:

 

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

13

New Comment