Society likes to idealize the rugged individual who, against all odds, manages to overcome their difficult life circumstances and succeed in a big way. There is a problem with this narrative, though, says Dr. Michael Ungar, a family therapist and researcher at Dalhousie University.
Personal resilience actually has a lot more to do with the supports a person has than with their individual traits.
The implications for the farm and for farm communities are clear.
While we tend to revere the rugged individual, the reality is that it’s the resourced person who is most likely to succeed, says Ungar, who is the university’s Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. “Social policies, institutional supports, a social safety net, access to health care, quality of community, support of extended families… have as much or probably more influence when it comes to whether an individual will get through a crisis.”
“To tell people to meditate their way out of stress is kind of blaming people themselves and putting all the responsibility to solve the problem on the individual,” says Ungar.
“If we want people to succeed, we need far fewer motivational gurus and much more help from the people in our families, workplaces, communities and society,” says Ungar, who summarizes years of research on resilience in his most recent book, Change Your World — The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success.
When the odds are stacked against us, self-improvement can only go so far, explains Ungar. While he isn’t minimizing the important role of psychologists and counsellors, his research repeatedly shows that government and community supports are also essential when times are tough.
Ungar sees this as good news. It’s easier to create a supportive environment than it is to change ourselves, he says. Keeping the schools open, hosting community dinners, organizing local festivals, creating inclusive cultural spaces, diversifying the local economy are some of Ungar’s suggestions for building a strong and resilient community.
We can all make a difference through our actions in our own little corner of the world and we don’t have to look hard to find examples. Angie Hallman, who lives on a farm near New Hamburg, Ont., with her husband and three young children, has been a long-time community volunteer, running the local Canada Day festivities and spearheading the building of a community splash pad.
It is Hallman’s mission to promote the value of volunteering in improving the quality of our own lives and those around us. To recognize the importance of everyday volunteerism, Hallman has proposed the creation of a Good Neighbour Recognition Program for Wilmot Township where she has been a municipal councillor since 2018. The program is a way “to celebrate the small things we do for each other that can make a big difference,” she says.
While rural communities are known for being tight-knit, this can make it difficult for newcomers to get to know people. Angela Field, who had moved to the Renfrew area in eastern Ontario from Sudbury to farm with her husband’s family was feeling isolated after the birth of her first child.
Field reached out to some acquaintances to form what she called a Cabin Fever Club. Each month the women rotated houses for a visit while their children played or napped. Later on, Field created a more formalized Cabin Fever Club through the local recreation centre.
In both formats, the sessions were well attended and got excellent feedback.
Ann Douglas knows what it’s like to be a newcomer in a small community, having recently moved to the Bancroft area from Peterborough. Douglas, an author, uses her time and talents to find ways to serve the community, one of the suggestions in a 2019 Ontario chief medical officer of health report that focuses on what individuals can do to create healthier, more connected communities.
“Because the impact of social isolation is so pervasive, helping people and communities (re)connect is everyone’s business,” the report’s authors write, suggesting we say hello to random people we meet on the street, wave to cars as they drive by, and reach out to senior citizens and others at risk of becoming isolated.
When it comes to volunteering, Douglas recommends tapping into your strengths. “If you don’t like committees, don’t do it,” she says. “We all have unique gifts to share; look for a way to share those.”
Concerned about the superficial conversations that can pass for connection on social media, Douglas actively works at making and sustaining deeper connections. Attending local events on topics that she is interested in brings her “into the orbit of people with similar passions,” she says.
12 recurring themes in resilience research*
1. Structure. We all do better when the world around us provides routines and expectations. During a crisis, structure is even more important, as it offers a buffer against chaos. It helps us feel that our lives are predictable.
2. Consequences. Making mistakes is a prerequisite for success but the consequences we suffer must offer manageable opportunities to repair what we have done wrong and integrate what we have learned into future efforts.
3. Intimate and sustaining relationships. Having even one person who loves us unconditionally is an important foundation for resilience.
4. Lots of other relationships. We all need a clan, a tribe, an extended family, colleagues at work, or an online community in which we feel needed. With loneliness becoming a public health crisis in many high-income countries, these networks of relationships have become more important than ever.
5. A powerful identity. How we are seen by others is crucial to our sense of self-worth. Our identities are co-constructions. We can tell others who we want to be, but a good identity always depends on how others see us and whether they value what we offer.
6. A sense of control. Whether one experiences personal efficacy or political efficacy, we all do better when we are given the opportunity to make decisions that affect our lives.
7. A sense of belonging, a religious affiliation, spirituality, culture and life purpose. Regardless of where we feel connected, we are more likely to succeed (especially during a crisis) when we feel our life has a purpose and others depend on us as much as we depend on them.
8. Rights and responsibilities. It is very difficult to experience success unless we experience social justice. It is also important that we are given genuine responsibilities for our own and others’ welfare.
9. Safety and support. Knowing our homes and communities are safe and have the right supports in place to help us find the resources we need to cope when problems occur is a crucial component of our environments.
10. Positive thinking. People who succeed have a positive future orientation that is grounded in a realistic assessment of the opportunities they have been given. If we have plenty of resources and are still unappreciative of the advantages we enjoy, positive thinking can help us see that our problems are more in our heads than in the external world.
11. Physical well-being. The better our environment is at keeping us physically healthy, the easier it is to maintain a lifestyle that improves our capacity to succeed.
12. Financial well-being. A strong economy, fair taxation and poverty reduction strategies can make us financially successful and impervious to changing economic conditions.
* Summarized from Change Your World by Dr. Michael Ungar.
- Author Ann Douglas started a newsletter called The Villager which focuses on creating community and finding common ground in a rapidly changing world.
- Change Your World — The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success by Dr. Michael Ungar (Sutherland House Books, 2018).