Home Society & Culture How Your Well-Being Is Shaped by Culture

How Your Well-Being Is Shaped by Culture

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Your physical, mental health, and your happiness, are shaped, even controlled by culture. How can culture have such a profound impact on your wellbeing? What are the surprisingly simple steps that you can take to ensure your culture helps, rather than harms, your well-being? 

Imagine growing up in 1930s Nazi Germany. You are surrounded by bigotry and hate. You are told that the most disgusting of prejudices are right, and justified. You witness people being harassed and abused in public. You hear reports of even worse than you have personally seen. What effect would that have on your wellbeing? 

Now contrast that with growing up in a culture where the well-being, health, and socialisation of everyone matters; where mutual support and encouragement are the way of living. What effect would that have on your wellbeing?

Those extremes make visible and illustrate how large the differences in culture can be. 

Almost every aspect of our lives is influenced by culture, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. From the work we do and how we do it, to how we spend our leisure time. 

Customs and traditions are visible and outward manifestation of something much deeper and invisible; our shared values and beliefs. 

Most of the culture in which we live is invisible to us, until we travel (in the real or virtual world). Then we see the differences. 

What is culture? At its most basic level, culture is the shared beliefs, values, practices, and behaviours of a group of people. Culture can be local, regional, national, or even international. It can be based on shared ethnic, national, or religious beliefs, or even on unique workplace or social values. 

The process of learning about a culture is called enculturation; much of our childhoods are dedicated to enculturation; learning how to function in our culture. Each time we join a new group we are enculturated. In a work environment, that is called “induction,” or “on-boarding”.

Culture is passed on generationally. Its impact on us is profound. It shapes how we see the world, our place within it, even how we think, behave, and what we talk about, and how.

This year, the UK was found to be the second most miserable country in the world. If you have experienced one of the UK’s national pastimes, complaining about the weather, the deceit and corruption of politicians, the ineffectiveness and cover-up culture in public bodies… you can quickly estimate the effect that culture would have on the national mood and wellbeing; it is no surprise that Brits are so miserable.

Culture’s influence can be benign or malignant

Cultures with fixed and unrealistically high standards of beauty can lead to body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating habits. Anorexia, bulimia and gender dysphoria are just three of the wellbeing disorders that have strong cultural origins. 

Some people who have adopted their culture’s perception of slim beauty are, literally, starving themselves to death. Groups of young girls, impacted by what appears to be social contagion, (culture), who rightly sense that males have more advantages in life, wish to change gender. 

In cultures where the norm is to work long, hard hours, people tend to work more than is healthy. In the cultures of some countries, death by overwork is more common, and has its own name. That is the case in Japan: “karoshi” translates as “overwork death”. In other countries, there is widespread awareness that overwork is a leading cause of ill-health, but no official figures are collated. That indicates a cultural blind-eye is being turned to the consequences of overwork. The culture of overwork is thought to be one reasons the longevity of USA citizens is around six years shorter than EU citizens.

Culture can also dictate how much sleep a person takes and is expected to take. Countries where the work culture impacts on the amount of sleep people have, typically have higher suicide rates, such as US, South Korea, and Japan

What is the link between sleep, culture and suicide? Long-term sleep deprivation is highly predicative of depression and suicide. 

Cultures with a high tolerance for alcohol consumption can normalise, even lionise, unhealthy drinking habits. For examples, Scotland, Russia, Belarus and others. 

Cultures where drug use is more normalised, (culturally acceptable), have, unsurprisingly, higher numbers of drug deaths. For example, the number of drug deaths per capita in Scotland is over three times higher than the next highest death rate (Finland).

Even the medical culture has well-being consequences

There seems to be a relationship between a culture of a drug being be prescribed for most or every medical problem and deaths by medical negligence. How is that possible? 

In cultures that have a strong expectation of a prescription being issued with each medical visit, there are wellbeing risks arising from patient appeasement, polypharmacy and misdiagnosis. 

Under pressure to prescribe something, anything, physicians run the risk of providing needless medication which may have toxic side effects. Equally, prescribing multiple medications to be taken simultaneously increases the risk of interactions and adverse side effects. Misdiagnosis, and over-reliance on medication might lead doctors to overlook underlying causes of health problems.

A prescribing culture carries further risks. Prescription errors lead to fatalities of huge numbers patients every year who received the wrong medication, dosage, or instructions.  

Medication monitoring issues also lead to multiple fatalities by of not adequately monitoring patients for potential side effects or interactions with other medications. 

Communication errors and maladministration, too, lead to needless deaths in large numbers. Many of those deaths can be traced back to an over prescribing culture. 

Here is just one example. The majority of people prescribed medicines for hypertension, high blood pressure, where the cause is too much salt in their diet, could have the same therapeutic effect as the drugs by cutting out just one teaspoonful of salt a day. Yet, the culture drives them to take the drug, and face all the dangers of the known side effects of those drugs. Many die, needlessly.

Around the world there are what are known as the “Blue Zones“, locations where people live longer healthier lives than others. They include, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California the US, Ikaria in Greece, and Nicoya in Costa Rica. 

What do they have in common? Culture. Despite their vast geographical distances, and different languages, each of the Blue Zones share five cultural elements. 

  • Physical activity is integrated seamlessly into their lives, and is not attained by formal exercise routines.
  • Their diets consist mostly of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fruits.
  • They have strong social networks and shared bonds of belonging.  
  • They enjoy a sense of purpose and meaning in life. 
  • They have effective methods to manage stress and thus live more relaxed lives.

Final thoughts

Can it really be the case that culture can have such a profound impact on our well-being? The Blue Zone cultures create a longer, healthier and better quality of life. It seems that first we shape our culture, then our culture shapes us. Choose wisely the culture of your friends and colleagues. 

What are the surprisingly simple steps that you can take to ensure your culture helps rather than harms your wellbeing?

In every part of the world there are those who want to live long, happy, active, connected, mutually supportive, and purposeful lives. 

Find people who share those five Blue Zone cultural elements, and make them your in-group. If you can’t find such a group near you, create one. 

What will you do today, to find them, or join them, and make your shared culture one that boosts your well-being?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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