I was recently listening to a series of lectures on cultural intelligence. The presenter, Dr. David Livermore (President of the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan), was examining 10 aspects of a people group that helps to establish their culture: their approach to identity, authority, time, risk, achievement, communication, lifestyle, rules, expressiveness, and social norms.

In the discussion of time orientation (e.g., “being” cultures vs. “doing” cultures) he raised the example of Eskimos who live in an environment where instead of having relatively equal parts of light and dark each day, they have months of each. It was in this section that he made an observation that caught my attention.

According to Dr. Livermore, the Eskimos work hard during the light months to provide for the dark months and do as little as possible during the dark months to preserve the stores they have been able to accumulate. In this sense, there is a stark shift from a “doing” to a “being” culture bases upon the season.

Then he notes that, generally speaking, the Eskimos enjoy the long dark winter months as a time to rest and be with family. As a counselor, I was expecting to hear that the depression rate went up significantly during these months. The lack of sunlight and reduced physical activity would seemingly lead to that conclusion.

I don’t want to make too much of an off-handed observation from a sociologist (the elevated suicide and addiction rate of Eskimos give some sense of a depression problem), but it did cause me to ask a fresh question about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). By the way, that is why I enjoy listening to Great Courses lectures from various fields – beyond the benefit of learning about new things (e.g., culture), I gain new questions from people who approach / examine life for different reasons than I do as a pastor / counselor.

In this case, I began to ask, “How much of SAD in American society is the result of our culture being one of the most ‘doing’ oriented cultures in the world?”

Would this be the case for every case of SAD in America? No, and I don’t even think it’s responsible for me to guestimate what the percentage might be.

But it pushes me to consider a larger question, “How much does culture influence the emotional and relational struggles of individuals in those cultures?”

In addition to being highly “doing” oriented, America is also a highly “individualist” culture. One result of this orientation is that we seek the explanation for a struggle within the individual who struggles. Often, this is right and good. No one is more influential in my life than I am, so when I struggle it makes sense to begin by looking in the mirror.

In the case of SAD, personal changes should be made. That could mean going to the tanning bed, taking a vitamin D supplement, or getting additional exercise, especially if it can be outside.

Examining personal beliefs and values would also be in order. Do you give into grumbling-oriented thinking when you are cold? Do you struggle to be content when you are unable to be as productive as you like or in the ways you prefer?

If you answer “yes” to these latter questions, it may be harder for you to correct these beliefs and values because you are not just battling your flesh (e.g., unhealthy personal beliefs, values, and habits) but you are battling your flesh against the current of your culture.[1]

This doesn’t change the possible need for change in beliefs (e.g., productivity expectations or idols of achievement), behaviors (e.g., exercise routines and outside activities), and biology (e.g., vitamins or tanning bed). But it may help you understand why the battle is harder than other changes you have sought to enact.

This possible cultural-influence should not be considered unique to SAD, but would be true for any struggle we try to change which require us to think or live in ways that are at odds with our culture. I hope this reflection helps you consider the role of culture (i.e., our “corporate flesh” – a term I’m borrowing from Cornelius Platingia in his book Not the Way Its Supposed to Be) in shaping some of the aspects of the challenges you face.

[1] Here culture is not being used in the sense of “culture war” about moral issues, but the predominant preferences a group of people have about things like time and communication styles.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Mental Illness and Medication” post which address other facets of this subject.