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From Helplessness to Hope with Community Spirit

by Nicola on 2013-09-04

From Helplessness to Hope with

Community Spirit

Dr Nicola Davies


Courtesy of David Ho.

The satirist and author Jonathan Swift advised that we should not share our fears with the community but instead share our courage. Given the community-based traditions of Inuit, this approach could help Inuit communities persist through difficult times and move toward positive change.

It goes without saying that human beings are social by nature, and are influenced by the attitudes and approaches of others in their communities. Surely you have noticed this effect at one time or another, when you spent time with someone who was feeling very negative or complaining a lot. Those negative moods tend to “spread" to all of the people in close proximity to the complainer. Indeed, an entire workplace or household can easily become dominated by fear and hopelessness in the presence of one or two very negative personalities. A more extreme example of the same phenomenon is the fact that when one person within a small community commits suicide, there is an increased risk of suicide among the person’s family and friends.

Unfortunately, this “contagious” nature of moods is actually stronger with respect to negative moods and expectations, as a matter of the human nervous system’s wiring - which is biased towards more readily noticing and focusing upon threatening factors and events in the environment. This cognitive bias toward the negative, it is theorized, served an evolutionary purpose in ensuring that threats would be noticed and dealt with.  Unfortunately, these shared tendencies in human nature mean that it is easy for a group to become focused on limitations or difficulties that group members face, as opposed to their strengths and hopes.

Some theorists have pointed out that different cultures may share different conceptions of the self and the mind. In fact, some mental health issues, such as disorders in which an individual feels hysterical and unable to control his or her mental condition, may be mediated by cultural conceptions and assumptions about the mind. An individual’s very conception of his or her personality and ability to change and succeed may be affected by the beliefs of the community, in very real and important ways. In short, cultural attitudes and expectations exert a strong pull on individual personality and outlook.

Learned helplessness, enforced by shared community expectations and values, can strongly impact the ability of individuals within society to grow and change. For instance, a community’s continual experience of social disadvantage and psychological disruption can result in a tendency among individuals in that culture to assume that disadvantage, difficulty, and failure will recur. Individuals seeking to develop a sense of hope and change may struggle mightily in such an atmosphere.

On a more encouraging note, positive biases, though they may require more initial effort, can also readily spread person-to-person within a community, allowing success to breed success.  Promoting more positive, hopeful psychological attitudes can be an uphill battle, but very much worth it, as individuals achieving improvements in their lives come to feel that the community is confident in their successes. Success and positive change inspires more of the same.

For Inuit communities, their history of social disadvantage and limitations may contribute to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. These negative biases are then naturally self-reinforcing. There can develop a habit of asking about and focusing upon misfortunes and suffering, and expressing sympathy, while discounting or downplaying the positive. In such an atmosphere, individuals experiencing positive change and success can feel discounted or, even, guilty. Such cultural pressures can make it difficult to sustain effort for positive change.

Fortunately, awareness of this cycle of negativity can, in itself, help change the cycle. A community’s support for positive change becomes self-reinforcing. A shift from negative to positive biases need not be dramatic or judgmental to be effective. For example, it could be as simple as changing attitudes toward seeking professional psychological support. Instead of expressions of sympathy or concern for those seeking professional help, community members might begin to express encouragement and hope for those individuals. For example, upon learning that a friend or family member is engaged in inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment, one might express delight and hopefulness rather than fear. Other individuals who could benefit from such help might then be encouraged to reach out for it.

In fact, shifting perspective on community members’ successes and positive changes is probably most effective when subtle and genuine. A steely resolve to smile through pain or suffering is no more helpful than an ever-dark mood or always expecting the worst. The point is simply - that the expectations and attitudes of our community do impact our own perspective and expectations. Hopefulness can become a habit, and such a habit is much easier to sustain with cultural support. 

Perhaps most hopefully for Inuit communities, a shift to positive expectations dovetails perfectly with traditional Inuit values of resiliency, communication, and helping one another. There is great reason to hope that the re-emergence of and reliance upon the traditional Inuit cultural values and approaches in individual cases can trigger the development of more positive expectations and habits on a broader level, as success and positive support builds upon itself.

 Courtesy of David Ho.

Author Bio:

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being.  Her publications can be viewed at Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:






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