Gemma Tipton on . . . the cost of love

Being loving and giving makes you feel good until you feel taken advantage of

This might seem like an odd thing to write in a newspaper, but sometimes too much news can be a mistake. I’m thinking of information of a particular type: the relentless barrage of awfulness that can distort your perspective on how nice life may frequently be.

It's that same thing that happens after watching too many episodes of Midsomer Murders – country walks are clouded as formerly charming riverbanks and woodlands take on a broodingly sinister aspect. You have to force yourself to remember, as you stroll in the dappled sunlight that, yes, people do get murdered in inventive ways, particularly in Midsomer Mallow, and especially if you're a member of the bell-ringing circle, but it's far more likely that you're going to have a very lovely walk in your chosen scenic beauty spot unmolested.

I’m not suggesting pretending the bad stuff isn’t out there, rather that we need to balance it with reminders of the less newsworthy good things. Working out how to strike a balance? That’s the tricky part.

How do you remind yourself that not everyone is motivated by greed, and that sometimes people do nice things for no reason; while, at the same time, making sure the greedy evil types are called to account, and you don’t spend your whole time being suckered?

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In other words, can niceness be a sustainable position? Is it be possible to be nice without, as the basic meaning of sustainable suggests, being used up or destroyed?

It’s worth a try. Ask anyone who regularly volunteers, and they’ll tell you how rewarding it is. Turning up at beach cleans, organising a Street Feast (last Sunday), urban guerrilla gardening, charity walks, or simply helping out a friend makes you feel good, and the more people get involved, the greater the good feelings grow.

The problem is, this only works up to the point you feel taken advantage of. You might find yourself thinking, yes, I do love helping out at the summer arts festival, but I never see Yer Wan over there, who's actually being paid, carrying chairs or cleaning up the venues; or I do enjoy giving English lessons to new arrivals to Ireland, but shouldn't some of my taxes be covering services like these as part of our social support networks?

And that's where economics comes into play. If you ever feel like vaguely depressing yourself, Google the "economics of relationships". Measuring investment and return is never a good place to start (or end up) when you're in love with someone, but there's a whole literature out there doing just that.

Try Marina Adshade's Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson's It's Not You, It's the Dishes (formerly published as Spousonomics), or William Nicolson's The Romantic Economist, and you too can be exploring your dating and relationship habits through the prism of market scarcity (playing hard to get), loss aversion (the urge to keep arguing even when you're wrong), sunk costs (time already spent trying to make it work), opportunity costs (what else you're missing out on by being together), and the multiplier effect, which isn't actually what it sounds like.

Beyond the question of whether it’s cheaper to live with someone or alone, balancing your inputs and outputs, ie getting economic about love, is usually a signal that something’s gone off track. You seldom notice that it’s always you who makes the coffee in the morning, or puts the bins out, when everything’s going well.

It’s when you start to feel that you may be on the cusp of getting emotionally or practically used up or destroyed that you’re entering into the territory of the unsustainable.

But is the answer making a profit and loss analysis of your lives together? The problem is, that somewhere along the line, sustainability and economics got mixed up. To pick a different example, when your hotel urges you to re-use your towels, it’s so that they can save money, but they merge that argument with saving the planet.

Do that enough times and you soon find environmental discussions being presented in purely economic terms: carbon trading anyone?

We also seemed to forget that economics isn’t the only measure by which we can assess things. People do things for all sorts of reasons, and we fall in love not because of what we can get out of it (one would hope), but because of a whole other set of evolutionary, social, sometimes poetic and, to be honest, also animal, reasons.

So when I start to wonder about what really lies at the heart of good relationships, as well as other good things in life, I realise that it’s time to ditch the spreadsheets and remember that there are other measures in life than who’s getting what.

And for the good news at the end of the bulletin? Economists making global financial predictions have to factor in some things that less frequently make the headlines, such as altruism and generosity.

Otherwise the sums just don’t add up.