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Sharing values

How culture can help balance your well-being

How culture can help balance your well-being

BY LAURIE MCPHERSON
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2015

The concept of culture is defined in many ways.

Most simply, it refers to the ever-evolving values and behaviours that are learned and shared by a community or group of individuals who regularly interact with one another.

These values, beliefs and everyday activities can be influenced by traditions passed from one generation to another or by beliefs and ideas that are commonly held among a group of people and expressed in many ways, including language, music, art or symbols. These cultural touchstones help shape who we are as human beings by impacting the development of self-esteem and self-concept.

As a result, culture can play a role in helping to positively shape a person's sense of identity, encouraging them to view themselves as unique and important individuals who also are part of a larger community. This is significant because when we view ourselves as worthwhile and are able to accept ourselves as good people, we are better able to accept others, experience greater empathy and have better relationships, all of which lead to better overall health and well-being.

 This is especially true in the case of young children, who are beginning to form their identity and benefit the most from experiencing a positive sense of self, since future development is greatly influenced by the foundation of experiences in those early years. As a result, culture can contribute to this sense of self by helping to shape a positive self-concept.

Both children and adults enjoy learning about and sharing aspects of their cultural heritage, whatever that may be. Beyond enjoyment, research has found that having a strong cultural identity combined with increased self-esteem may act as a protective factor against alcohol and substance use, depression and suicide.   

Studies around the world have found a link between cultural involvement and enhanced resilience, which helps to protect people from distress associated with trauma and loss.

Indigenous peoples enhance cultural identity within their communities in a variety of ways, such as through the sharing of Elders' teachings, role-modelling, learning traditional languages and practices, participating in gatherings, and regaining knowledge around customs and traditions. These teachings and meaningful activities help to restore cultural identity that was stripped, particularly over the last century.

This strengthening of culture is leading to a renewed sense of resilience and hope for Indigenous peoples. A local example is a strength-based program for Indigenous youth that uses mentors to support young people who are new to Winnipeg by sharing social and cultural activities together.

Because culture does not occur in isolation, the social benefits of identifying with and participating in culture are also key components of the link between culture and well-being.

Culture tends to bring us together in groups, whether it's celebrating a recognized holiday, sharing a meal, or practising our spirituality. We know that some cultures value the group or "collective" more than individualism. For example, some cultures place a higher value on helping others, selflessness and working together rather than the individual pursuits of success or being independent and self-sufficient.

Research has shown that whether your particular culture values the collective or the individual, social connectedness remains an important factor, and that cohesiveness has a positive impact on well-being. Some of the specific benefits of the social aspect of culture include feeling that we have something in common with others, that we are accepted by others, and that we belong to a group. Community identity and a psychological sense of community are two factors highlighted in the research on culture that are linked to fewer mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

New immigrants to Canada can identify with one in five people in the country who were born elsewhere and have come to Canada for a new start. This information can help recent immigrants recognize that they are not alone in their journey to adapt to a new country. They could also connect with other people who share their culture, finding acceptance and a sense of belonging.

There are numerous cultural organizations and groups in the community that exist to bring people together for social support and cultural activities. While most people would identify that their engagement in cultural activities is uplifting and meaningful, many people would not be aware that engaging in their culture is actually having a positive impact on their health and well-being.

While there is still much to learn about the links between culture and well-being, there is enough evidence to maintain that engaging in culture can be good for you in a number of ways. Take a moment to reflect on what culture means to you and ask yourself what you could do to enhance your well-being through involvement in that culture. You may find a wealth of opportunities.

Laurie McPherson is with the mental health promotion program at the Winnipeg Health Region.

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