Living with poverty: Are psycho-spiritual dimensions the x-factor in family resilience?
A proposed research agenda

Sonali Bhatt Marwaha


There are 1.31 billion absolute poor persisting below the $1 a day line. Forty per cent of them live in South Asia. Within South Asia, the incidence, depth, and severity of poverty are highest in the Eastern region (Ravallion and Chen 1996, Sen). A substantial percent of the worlds population lives in substandard and below subsistence conditions. This situation exists in the underdeveloped, developing, and developed nations. The face of poverty, however, is different between and within these regions. Poverty is thus a relative term encompassing within it a heterogeneous group.

Binayak Sen, in his review on poverty in Bangladesh has aptly described the multidimensionality of poverty. As he states, “It focuses on various aspects of deprivation, both income and non-income. It reflects disempowerment, insecurity against shocks, and lack of opportunities. It has manifold expressions and, indeed, many roots. It is about income deprivation, about shortfalls in consumption and inadequate supply of nutrition. It is about poor access to education and low physical asset bases. It is about risks, uncertainties, and vulnerabilities. It is about personal insecurity asmuchas it is about lack of food security. It is about crisis coping capacities. It is about self-development initiatives. It is about dismal state of health and health care access. It is static and dynamic, transient and chronic, sporadic and systemic. It is seasonal as much as it is spatial. It is inter-generational. It is about all known vicious circles, of low savings, low investment, and low growth. It is about the quality of growth and being left out of growth. It is also about personal freedom, alienation, and social justice. It is expressed in each of these and all of these together.”

Poor people live without fundamental freedoms of action and choice, that the better-off take for granted. They also face extreme vulnerability to ill health, economic dislocation, and natural disasters. Moreover, they are often exposed to ill treatment by institutions of the state and society and are powerless to influence key decisions affecting their lives. These are all dimensions of poverty (World Development Report 2000/2001).

As Bevan and Joireman (1997) summarize, ‘while poverty everywhere involves people experiencing very real material and other deprivations, the concept of poverty is used to cover a wide-ranging set of interrelated life-chances which vary and are valued differently in the diverse cultures and sub-cultures of the world’. On this basis, the notion of what constitutes ‘basic needs’ has expanded to encompass not only food, water, shelter, and clothing, but also access to other assets such as education, health, credit, and participation in political process, security, and dignity. The 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit was the first major international gathering to mark the expansion of the concepts of poverty and well-being. The United Nations Development Program (1997) states, '[Poverty] is deprivation in the most essential capabilities of life, including leading a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, having adequate economic provisioning and participating fully in the life of the community' (UNDP, 1997). By 2000, the World Bank (2000) was describing poverty in terms of material deprivation, low levels of education and health, exposure to vulnerability and risk, and voicelessness and powerlessness.

In recent years, poverty has been viewed in a more holistic sense, based at least in part on the increased credence given to the views of the poor themselves. Poverty is now seen as multidimensional, dynamic, complex, institutionally embedded, and a gender and location specific phenomenon (World Bank, 2000a, p. 4). The poor are not a homogeneous group, but experience poverty in different ways, requiring a range of policy responses and measurements (Nunan, Grant, et al 2002).

Participatory approaches to poverty advocate the direct inclusion of the poor themselves in the process of defining poverty. According to Chambers (1995), when the poor are asked, income deprivation is quite low on their priority ranking, below self-respect and lack of domination. The participatory school asserts that the conventional understanding of poverty does not allow for its fundamental subjectivity. For the poor, poverty is a local, diverse, and dynamic condition. While poverty relates to a lack of physical necessities, assets and income, it is also more than this. The World Development Report 2000/01 states, 'to be poor was to experience ill being in many ways, and to suffer multiple disadvantages that reinforce each other and interlock to trap them' (Nunan, Grant, et al 2002).

Participatory poverty assessment (PPAs)

Based on poor people’s definitions of poverty as documented in the Participatory Poverty Assessment (PPAs), the World Bank reports concluded: First, many factors converge to make poverty a complex, multidimensional phenomenon. Second, as expected, poverty is routinely defined as the lack of what is necessary for material well-being — especially food but also housing, land, and other assets. Poverty is the lack of multiple resources leading to physical deprivation. Third, poor people’s definitions reveal important psychological aspects of poverty.

Poor people are acutely aware of their lack of voice, power, and independence, which subject them to exploitation. Their poverty also leaves them vulnerable to rudeness, humiliation, and inhumane treatment by both private and public agents of the state from whom they seek help. Poor people also speak about the pain brought about by their unavoidable violation of social norms and their inability to maintain cultural identity through participating in traditions, festivals, and rituals. Their inability to fully participate in community life leads to a breakdown of social relations. Fourth, the absence of basic infrastructure, particularly roads, transport, water, and health facilities emerged as critical. While literacy is viewed as important, schooling received mixed reviews, occasionally highly valued but often notably irrelevant in the lives of poor people. Finally, poor people focus on assets rather than income and link their lack of physical, human, social, and environmental assets to their vulnerability and exposure to risk (World Development Report 2000/2001).

Experience of poverty

The Voices of the Poor (World Bank, 2000), reviewed nearly 100 Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs) from around the world. Following is a brief overview of the experience of poverty as reported by the poor of nearly 100 countries of the world.

In explaining poverty, poor men and women very often express a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness, humiliation, and marginalization. In Ghana, it was expressed as “you know good, but you cannot do good.” In Cameroon, poverty is characterized as “a feeling of powerlessness and their inability to make themselves heard” (Cameroon 1995). A poor elderly man in Uganda said, “The forces of poverty and impoverishment are so powerful today. Governments or the big churches can only manage them. So we now feel somewhat helpless. It is this feeling of helplessness that is so painful, more painful than poverty itself” (Uganda 1998). In Eastern Europe, poor people report widespread corruption, powerlessness, and helplessness, even when employed by private enterprise or reorganized and privatized collective farms. Poor people often reported that they have little influence over their political representatives. In India, poor people are cynical about politicians who promise action and are paid back in alcohol, fueling already high rates of alcoholism among some scheduled caste and tribal groups (India 1997a). In Pakistan, local politicians are reported to have used funds for their own purposes (Pakistan, 1996). In many countries, local politicians are seen as being closely connected with local “mafia” groups and the rich. Across countries, much of the helplessness and sense of powerlessness of poor people comes from their experience with corrupt, uncaring, inefficient officers of the state.

Lack of voice and power is experienced not only in relations with the state, but also in poor people’s relations with the market, landlords, bankers, moneylenders, and employers. In India, Uganda, Guatemala, Moldova, Thailand, Vietnam, and Ghana, poor people talk about their inability to protect themselves from exploitation. The India report notes, “the poor have lost their bargaining power. The basis of dominance is control over productive resources and the basis of subordination is survival” (India 1998b). In these and in several other countries, poor people report that wage laborers are the most exploited because they are forced into poor working conditions and long hours, and they must accept substandard salaries. Because they lack choices and resources, poor people are often forced to ask help from the same people who exploit them – the landlords, pawnbrokers, and moneylenders. Poor women express fear of increased crime, both in public and at home. In Moldova, women are afraid to work the night shift because of fear of assaults (Moldova 1997). In South Africa, case studies document “rapes of teenage girls, unfiled claims of child support by mothers due to fears of being beaten by the fathers, and even the crippling of a woman following a drunken argument among the couple” (South Africa 1998). The South Africa PPA also describes gang-related and political violence. Women report feeling vulnerable to physical attacks and sexual assaults when they are out collecting firewood. In India and in Pakistan, women spoke about the dangers of sexual assault and harassment by forest officials and others when collecting firewood.

Entering into cycles of indebtedness often contributes to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness among poor people. In Pakistan and India, indebtedness and debt are concerns common to both urban and rural communities, and a sense of helplessness and diminished autonomy often accompanies reflections on debt. The problem of bonded labor in India is well recognized. Problems with increasing indebtedness are also voiced in Swaziland, especially in connection with the inability to cope with rising prices of food, transportation, education, and health care (Swaziland 1997).

The voices of the poor in developing countries differ from those who have experienced sudden poverty, such as in Eastern Europe. All reflect insecurity and material deprivation, yet the experience of long-term poverty is often accompanied by its almost fatalistic acceptance, even if people have not given up the struggle. In contrast, respondents from Eastern Europe are filled with disbelief and demoralization, and are much more likely to make comparative statements contrasting the better past with the intolerable present.

While poverty is material in nature, it has psychological effects such as distress at being unable to feed one’s children, insecurity from not knowing where the next meal will come from, and shame at having to go without foods that have strong symbolic value. Frequently parents relate that they deal with food insecurity by going hungry, so that they will not have to see their children starve. In Brazil, parents report that poverty is “to come home and see your children go hungry and not have anything to give them” (Brazil 1995). The distress accompanying the decision to abandon babies to increase the likelihood that the baby or the family will survive is acute. In Tbilisi, Georgia, there have been increasing reports of babies abandoned at maternity wards as well as of mothers selling children to support the remaining children.

Poor people often mention turning to God for comfort, solace, and support. A poor man in Pakistan said, “As God gives food to a tiny insect living in the stones, He makes sure we have enough food to live” (Pakistan 1994). Being poor can expose one to ridicule. In Latvia, poor people “felt humiliated by what they perceived as a pressure to ‘beg’ for help and to put up with rude, contemptuous, and moralistic behavior on the part of social assistance office staff” (Latvia 1998). Poor men and women spoke about the shame, stigma, and humiliation of poverty. They spoke about the shame that children experienced in school when they were stigmatized because they receive free lunches, dress in shabby hand-me-downs, or have to use photocopied class materials. “Children who receive free lunches are served at a separate table, receive poorer quality food, and feel humiliated when other children claim they are eating from other people’s money, even though some parents do community work for the municipality to pay for the lunches” (Latvia 1998). In Armenia and Georgia, parents spoke about children’s psychological trauma of wearing old clothes and being so shamed that they refuse to go to school (Armenia 1996, Georgia 1997).

As Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch (1999) express, “Violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, torture, intimidation are all part of the human experience, as are joy, celebration, rituals, dance and music. Anguish, anxiety, bad relations, exhaustion, frustration, grief, hunger, isolation, low self-esteem, pain, worry, depression, anger, loneliness, want – these are all a part of the experience of living in poverty. The psychological toll of economic stress is huge, and pervades all aspects of life. The widespread reports in this study of alienation, frustration, and depression from new and sudden poverty, as experienced particularly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, are striking. The PPAsshow the holism of life and living.”

Well-being in poverty

The global Consultations with the Poor (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999) project was a large scale comparative research effort using participatory methods to focus on the voices of the poor. Research teams from 23 countries participated in this research.

Poor people were asked to analyze and share their ideas of well-being, a good experience of life, and of ill being, a bad experience of life. For them, well-being and ill being had many aspects. To be poor was to experience ill being in many ways and to suffer multiple disadvantages. Those who took part in the Consultations showed how cruelly the many dimensions of disadvantage reinforce each other and interlock to trap them and how difficult it is for them to move from the ill being they experience to the well-being they wish. Repeatedly, the psychological dimensions of well-being and ill being were reported as being of paramount importance (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch (1999).

Well-being was variously expressed as happiness, harmony, peace, freedom from anxiety, and peace of mind. In Russia, people said, “Well-being is a life free from daily worries about lack of money”; in Bangladesh, “to have a life free from anxiety”; in Brazil, quality of life is “not having to go through so many rough spots” and “when there is cohesion, no quarrels, no hard feelings, happiness, in peace with life”; in Nigeria, “well-being is found in those that have peace of mind, living peacefully”; in Bolivia, “quality of life is high when you have a family, to feel supported and understood. You can have money but without a family it’s worth nothing”; in Thailand, livelihood was simply defined as “happiness”; “It is to be filled with joy and happy. It is found in peace and harmony in the mind and in the community.” A middle aged man in Bulgaria expressed “Being well means not to worry about your children, to know that they have settled down; to have a house and livestock and not to wake up at night when the dog starts barking; to know that you can sell your output; to sit and chat with friends and neighbors”. A poor Ethiopian woman expressed her ideas of life as, “A better life for me is to be healthy, peaceful and to live in love without hunger. Love is more than anything. Money has no value in the absence of love” (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

For many, too, spiritual life and religious observance were woven in with other aspects of well-being. The importance to poor people of the church, mosque, temple and sacred place was repeatedly evident from their comparisons of institutions, in which these frequently ranked high, if not highest, as key supports in their lives (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch (1999).

Ill being was described in terms of lack of material things, as bad experiences, and bad feelings about the self. In Bosnia, the poor described ill being as follows: “Children are hungry, so they start to cry. They ask for food from their mother and their mother doesn’t have it. Then the father is irritated, because the children are crying, and he takes it out on his wife. So hitting and disagreement break up the marriage.” A group of young men in Jamaica ranked lack of self-confidence as the second biggest impact of poverty. Poor people spoke about loss, grief, anguish, worry, over thinking, madness, frustration, anger, alienation, humiliation, shame, loneliness, depression, anxiety and fear (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

Dimensions of well-being

While the nature of ill being and poverty is specific to location and person, there is also a striking commonality of experience across countries, cultures, rural and urban areas, and age and gender divides. The Consultations study found this to be true across countries ranging from Bangladesh, Thailand, and Indonesia in Asia, to Argentina and Ecuador in Latin America, to Ghana and Malawi in Africa, to Russia and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Well-being and ill being, as people explained them, can be described in terms of five dimensions, each with a bad and a good condition of being, and each with its agenda for intervention. The five interrelated dimensions are material well-being, physical well-being, security, freedom of choice and action, and good social relations

Material well-being

A man from Equador described material well-being as “A livelihood that will let you live.” An Ethiopian described it as “We eat when we have, we sleep when we don’t.” Lack and want refer to material poverty and deprivation. This is hardly new, but lack of food, shelter, clothing, poor housing and uncertain livelihood sources were critical and mentioned everywhere. In Nigeria, material well-being was said to be experienced by “those that lack nothing.” Having enough to eat the whole year round was mentioned repeatedly in many countries, as was the possession of assets. In rural areas, this took the form of land with secure tenure, together with assets that allowed cultivation and a good harvest. In urban areas, capital to start a business, access to loans and above all dependable work were stressed (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

Physical well-being

Physical well-being was described mainly in terms of health, strength, and appearance. Health and physical well-being are of value in themselves. But for poor people, a strong body was seen as a crucial precondition for being able to work. For the poor, their body is the main asset, yet one that is uninsured. Shortage of food and sickness not only causes pain, but weakens and devalues the asset. Anguish and grief over watching loved ones die because of lack of money for health care is a silent crisis of poverty. Appearing well and strong was repeatedly stressed as a part of well-being. Sometimes it was more important to girls and young women than to others (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).


Many people described security as peace of mind or confidence in survival. This was the case not just in terms of livelihood, but also in terms of sheer physical survival in the face of rising corruption, crime, violence, lack of protection from the police and absence of recourse to justice, wars between ethnic groups, tribes and clans, frequency of natural disasters, and uncertainties of season and climate. In the Kyrgyz Republic people said, “among all the well-being criteria, peace is the most important” (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

Freedom of choice and action

Well-being for many people means freedom of choice and action and the power to control one’s life, to plan, and to take action. It means the power to avoid the exploitation, rudeness and otherwise humiliating treatment so often meted out towards the poor by the rich or the more powerful in society. It also includes the ability to acquire skills, education, loans, information, services, and resources; to live in “good places”; to withstand sudden and seasonal stresses and shocks and not slip further into poverty. Well-being was frequently linked to moral responsibility, with freedom of choice and action extending to having the means to help others in need (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

Social well-being

Social well-being was defined as good relations within the family and the community. In post-conflict and “transitional economies,” the need for good social relations across the nation was mentioned. Being able to care for, raise, marry, and settle children was repeatedly stressed. Social well-being included social respect and being part of a community. The stigma of poverty was a recurring theme. Many participants spoke of how their poverty prevented them from participating fully in society. Being unable to follow the traditions and customs of their respective cultures was a humiliation for many. The poor also spoke about discrimination – that is, being denied opportunities – and humiliating treatment by officials. There was a widespread experience of being treated badly, whether by guards at supermarkets or by uncaring doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, and traders (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

Wealth and well-being are not the same

The poor interviewed in the Consultations distinguished between well-being and wealth. Those who were the richest were not necessarily in the top well-being category. In contrast, poverty and non-material well-being could sometimes be found together. Of Accompong, a rural site in Jamaica, the study facilitators wrote: “The lives of all citizens are impacted by this peace within the neighborhood. Despite the hard times and obvious poverty among most of the households the open welcome and hospitality to visitors and strangers to the community gave a distinct feeling of well-being and good quality of life” (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

Enough for a good life is not a lot

Poor people’s aspirations for material well-being were modest. It is perhaps part of the human condition to aspire for imaginable, realistic improvements in one’s condition. Participants in the Consultations showed this realism. Generally, they hoped for moderate, not radical, or revolutionary improvements. Great wealth was not seen as necessary for well-being (Narayan, Chambers, Shah, & Petesch, 1999).

Living with poverty

Snel and Staring (2001) have observed that in research on poverty, poor households are all too frequently presented as passive victims of economic and political circumstances and developments. Poverty is viewed as something that happens to people that they do not exert any influence on. Research into coping strategies, however, assumes that people are active agents who have a certain freedom of choice and action. No matter how limited their leeway sometimes might be, human conduct is never completely pre-structured by the circumstances. To a certain extent, poor households are free to opt for strategies/choices that produce good or bad results. As Robert (1991) states, “Attributing strategies to people, whether as individuals, as households, or as interest groups signals that despite the importance of structural constraints choice is possible, and that the exercise of choice can result in alternative outcomes.”

Snel and Staring (2001) use the term coping strategies to refer to all the strategically selected acts that individuals and households in a poor socioeconomic position use to restrict their expenses or earn some extra income to enable them to pay for the basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) and not fall too far below their society’s level of welfare. Coping strategies are thus series of strategic acts, based on a conscious assessment of alternative plans of action. Within the limited options they sometimes have, households in a poor socioeconomic position choose the plans of action that are proportionately the most useful to them. This does not necessarily mean these plans of action always serve the purpose they were intended to serve.

Snel and Staring (2001) further add that, in the context of Third World economies, the term survival strategies is misleading because it suggests that coping strategies can enable individuals and households to escape poverty. Survival strategies have to do with issues like living frugally, meeting their own needs, and earning a bit on the side so that an immediate financial improvement can be seen. Coping with problems involves efforts on the part of individuals to solve situations they perceive as problematic. Coping with emotions has to do with the efforts individuals make to reduce or avoid the mental stress generated by problematic situations.

Poverty studies also show evidence of some friction between coping with problems and coping with emotions. Poverty is a situation that causes friction to start with. If people are not capable of finding a way out of the poverty they find themselves in, they would, at any rate, benefit from being able to avoid or reduce the stress caused by the poverty. Poor people often do not have the money to afford these distractions.

At this point the question raised here is, despite all the problems that the poor live in, they are still living life. They do not succumb to the pressures and give up on life. Especially in the context of the generational poor in the Indian rural areas, we need to ask what is it that helps them to live. What mechanisms of thought, action, and belief permit them to accept their life as it is, and live life? Without dispute the economic and health aspects of life are essential. However, these areas are beyond our scope to address.

Need for a new research agenda.

The authors of the Voices of the Poor, economists and sociologists, illustrate that for poor people, the good and the bad life are multidimensional, with the experiential and psychological dimensions at the center. In understanding what is well-being, what is a good experience of life, there are perhaps no final answers. But credence needs to be given to their understanding of their needs. For us psychologists, these questions come within our purview.

None besides those living in dire circumstances aptly portray the primary purpose of life and that is, survival. What gives impetus to the survival instinct, especially under circumstances that verily threaten survival itself? These are questions that we psychologists, as scientists of human behavior and existence, have scarcely paid attention to. In addressing those living in impoverished conditions, our research agenda so far has focused on the consequences of this state. Thus, our research has explored cognitive dimensions and mental health aspects of those of the “lower socio economic groups” in comparison to other socio economic groups, i.e. the poor in relation to the not so poor. In addition, issues such as alcoholism and violence have captured our attention. No doubt, these are essential issues. However, our focus has been rather clinical than looking at it from the perspective of living in poverty. It is almost as if we are overwhelmed by their circumstances and shy away from using the word “poor.” As psychotherapists, many of us may have felt at a loss in our inability to deal with the poor. We may have tried methods emerging from our training that would have been quite inappropriate for their needs. Our ultimate recourse is to send them back to the psychiatrist to provide the pill. As psychologists, we do tend to have an elitist approach. This, however, may be emerging from our felt helplessness at dealing with poverty.

One of the primary principles of psychotherapy is that before we take away something – a maladaptive behavior – from a person, we have to give something – a route to adaptive behavior – first. In dealing with the poor, or any one in dire circumstances for that matter, we need to be aware of their life circumstances and the adaptive methods that others in their group use. The importance of cultural relativism cannot be denied. What this essentially requires is shedding our inhibitions, prejudices, perspectives, and worldviews and using their views to deal with their life circumstances. In doing so, we do not have to replace our worldview with theirs or theirs with ours.

In a working paper on a longitudinal study on low socio economic status and mental health, the authors (Miech, Caspi, Moffitt, and Wright) concluded that different mental health problems are differently related to social status. Each disorder in the study (anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, and attention deficit disorder) bore a different relation to educational attainment, indicating that differences between disorders extend beyond the simple psychotic/non-psychotic dichotomy currently recognized in research on social selection and social causation of disorders. In terms of treatment, the finding that different psychiatric diagnoses are differently related to social status suggests that the need for interventions and therapeutic strategies varies by disorder. In terms of theory, these findings highlight the need for disorder-specific explanations of the relations between social status and mental disorders. There are two implications of this: one, poverty or low socio economic status per se is not the cause of mental ill health, and two, despite poverty, mental health or well-being is maintained. 

At this point now, it is necessary to ask a pertinent question: what are the factors that aid the poor in living in their circumstances? A new research agenda inquiring into these factors is essential, as it will provide us a better understanding of their approaches to dealing with life. From this can emerge approaches and goals of therapy with the poor, and indeed, for anyone who is feeling threatened by the burden of life. I now give a brief overview of some of the factors that I have identified in the literature on poverty.


An interesting research review on coping with poverty by Kuo (2001) suggests that exposure to “green” environments can enhance human effectiveness and make life’s demands seem manageable. The question he raises is, does this phenomenon extend to poor inner cities, where green space is minimal and life’s demands may be overwhelming? His study revealed that residents living in buildings without nearby trees and grass reported more procrastination in facing their major issues and assessed their issues as more severe, less soluble, and more long standing than did their counterparts living in greener surroundings. The results supported the hypothesis— that green space enhances residents’ effectiveness by reducing mental fatigue.

Kaplan (1995) in a paper on the restorative benefits of nature notes that many settings, stimuli, and tasks in modern life draw on a critical resource for effective functioning: the capacity to deliberately direct attention, or pay attention. The information-processing demands of everyday life all take their toll, resulting in mental fatigue. In contrast, natural settings and stimuli such as landscapes and animals seem to effortlessly engage our attention, allowing us to attend without paying attention. For this and a number of other reasons nature provides a respite from deliberately directing one’s attention. As a consequence, Kaplan suggests, time spent in nature allows us to recover from mental fatigue and leaves us with enhanced effectiveness and a sense of rejuvenation.

Kuo (2001) reviewed the literature on 16 studies bearing on these proposed effects. In 14 of these 16, one or more of the predicted effects was statistically significant. He reports that evolutionary theory provides an interesting framework for interpreting these and previous findings on the power of nature for the human species. Based on various research he raises two points: First, habitat selection theory suggests that organisms will tend to be drawn toward settings in which they are likely to thrive and a voluminous literature has established the strong human preference for settings with natural elements. Second, ethological research across a variety of species has established that animals housed in unfit habitats undergo social and psychological breakdown, showing disturbances in play, parenting patterns, and social behavior. Perhaps one interpretation for the human preference for relatively natural landscapes and the apparent effects of nature on blood pressure, heart rate, mood, day-to-day effectiveness, social behavior, cognitive functioning, and work performance is that nature is an essential component of a fit human habitat. Regular contact with nature may be as important to our psychological and social health as the regular consumption of fruit and vegetables is to our physical health (Kuo, (2001).

In the context of the rural Indian, the majority of which lives in poverty, this understanding of the link between nature and well-being, may be one of the contributing factors that assist them in their life. This area is worth exploring in the context of the urban and rural poor and their experience of well-being.

Family resilience

Resilience - the ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges - has become an important concept in mental health theory and research over the past two decades. It involves dynamic processes fostering positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000). Resilience does not mean bouncing back unscathed, but rather struggling well, effectively working through and learning from adversity, and attempting to integrate the experience into the fabric of their lives (Higgins, 1994). These strengths and resources enable individuals and families to respond successfully to crises and persistent challenges and to recover and grow from those experiences (Cowan, Cowan, & Schultz, 1996). The concept of family resilience extends our understanding of healthy family functioning to situations of adversity. Although some families are shattered by crisis or chronic stresses, what is remarkable is that many others emerge strengthened and more resourceful. What matters most in dealing with adversity are effective family processes, involving the quality of caring and committed relationships  (Walsh, 2003).

As research was extended to a wide range of adverse conditions, such as growing up in impoverished circumstances, dealing with chronic medical illness, or recovering from catastrophic life events, trauma, and loss, resilience came to be viewed in terms of an interplay of multiple risk and protective processes over time, involving individual, family, and larger sociocultural influences (Garmezy, 1991; Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990; Patterson, 2002; Rutter, 1987).

A family resilience framework offers several advantages. By definition, it focuses on strengths under stress, in the midst of crisis and in overcoming adversity (Walsh, 2003). Second, it is assumed that no single model fits all families or their situations. Functioning is assessed in context i.e., relative to each family's values, structure, resources, and life challenges. Third, processes for optimal functioning and the well-being of members are seen to vary over time, as challenges unfold and families evolve across the life-cycle. While no single model of family health fits all, a family resilience perspective is grounded in a deep conviction in the potential for family recovery and growth out of adversity (Walsh, 2003).

Family belief systems powerfully influence how we view a crisis, our suffering, and our options (Wright, Watson, & Bell, 1996). Shared constructions of reality emerge through family and social transactions; in turn, these belief systems organize family processes and approaches to crisis situations and they can be fundamentally altered by such experiences (Reiss, 1981). Whether as a personal tragedy or a catastrophic event, adversity generates a crisis of meaning and potential disruption of integration. Resilience is fostered by shared, facilitative beliefs that increase options for problem resolution, healing, and growth. They help members make meaning of crises; facilitate a hopeful, positive outlook; and offer transcendent or spiritual moorings.

It is worth exploring this framework, in the context of the Indian family system and the rural Indian. Our system, as that of others, serves as the root of problems especially in view of problems such as early marriages, constricting family communication patterns, dowry and dowry deaths, alcoholism and abuse within the family (Marwaha, 2003).

Cultural and social relations

The Voices of the Poor emphasizes the importance of cultural and social relations. Cultural identity is maintained through rituals, celebrations, and festivals, and poor people frequently mentioned participation in these events. The significance of this cannot be overstated: for many poor people, social solidarity is one of the most important assets available to them. To maintain this solidarity and the emotional and physical security it provides, people are willing to make considerable sacrifices and will readily divest themselves of a wide range of material assets to ensure that these social bonds are preserved. Thus, after the most basic needs such as food and housing are met, the largest household expenditures tend to be on traditional ceremonies. Although using scarce resources for social events rather than for, say, health or education may appear an irresponsible behavior, from the point of view of the poor, it can be a highly rational choice, provided the expenditures do not become a source of long-term indebtedness. In fact, generous spending (to the point of conspicuous consumption) is a way to gain prestige and to reinforce ties to the community, which in turn will make it easier to obtain assistance in case of need (World Bank 2000).

Maintaining social solidarity is of extreme value to poor people, and the inability to reciprocate with gifts or participate in community events can have very harmful consequences ranging from humiliation, loss of honor and psychological distress to social marginalization and exclusion from important social networks. In fact, violation of social norms is often what poor respondents define as poverty. In the rural areas of Madagascar, for instance, being poor is equated with the inability to “adhere to local customs and norms,” whereas a rich person is one who can “afford to remain within the local norms” (Madagascar 1996). These societal bonds can help to stabilize communities and ease the psychological stresses of poverty (World Bank, 2000).

The implications of participation in cultural norms and festivities for the poor and its influence on social and personal well-being is an area of interest on its own, as in understanding this in context of the influence of other behaviors.

Positive outlook

According to Walsh (2003), considerable research documents the strong effects of a positive outlook in coping with stress, recovery from crisis, and overcoming barriers to success. Hope is to the spirit what oxygen is to the lungs: It fuels energy and efforts to rise above adversity. Hope is a future-oriented belief: no matter how bleak the present, a better future can be envisioned. In problem-saturated conditions, it is essential to rekindle hopes and dreams in order to see possibilities, tap into potential resources, and strive to surmount obstacles toward aspirations. Hope for a better life for their children keeps many struggling parents from being defeated by their immediate plight.

Similar to an optimistic bias, epidemiologists find that "positive illusions" sustain hope in dealing with adversity, such as a life-threatening illness (Taylor, S., 1989; Taylor, S., Kemeny, M., Reed, G., et al., 2000). Unlike denial, there is awareness of a grim reality, such as a poor prognosis, and a choice to believe they can overcome the odds against them. This positive bias fuels efforts that can reduce risk and maximize the chances of success. Initiative and perseverance--hallmarks of resilience--are fueled by unwavering shared confidence through an ordeal: Mastering the art of the possible is vital for resilience, since some things cannot be changed (Higgins, 1994). For families, it involves taking stock of their situation-the challenges, constraints, and resources-and then focusing energies on making the best of their options. This requires acceptance of that which is beyond their control. Instead of being immobilized, or trapped in a powerless victim position, a family's focus is directed toward ongoing and future possibilities, i.e., playing the hand that is dealt as well as possible. Families with an Eastern philosophical or religious orientation tend to have greater ease in accepting things beyond their control or comprehension whereas those with a Western-mastery orientation find difficulty yielding control and instrumental problem-solving tendencies (Walsh, 2003).

What are the positive beliefs and illusions that sustain the poor in India? What is the mechanism of these beliefs? These are the initial research questions raised here.

Transcendent beliefs and practices

The influence of spirituality and religion in context to the poor has received increased attention. Walsh (2003) highlighted transcendent beliefs and practices in the context of family resilience. Based on a literature review, she reports that transcendent beliefs and practices provide meaning and purpose beyond ourselves, our families, and our immediate troubles (Beavers & Hampson, 1990). Most families find strength, comfort, and guidance in adversity through connections with their cultural and religious traditions (Walsh, 1999). Rituals and ceremonies facilitate passage through significant transitions and linkage with a larger community and common heritage (Imber-Black & Roberts, 1992). Suffering, and often the injustice or senselessness of it, are ultimately spiritual issues (Wright et al., 1996). Spiritual resources, in deep faith, practices such as prayer and meditation, and religious/congregational affiliation have all been found to be wellsprings for resilience (Werner & Smith, 1992). Many find spiritual nourishment outside of formal religion, e.g., deep personal connection with nature, music and the arts, or a higher power. Studies of successful African-American families find that strong faith and congregational involvement help them to rise above barriers of poverty and racism (Boyd-Franklin, 1999). Cecília Loreto Mariz (1998) in her study on Coping with Poverty conducted amongst the Pentecostals and Christian Base Communities in Brazil investigated how religious groups support individualism and encourage the poor to organize. Groups with shared values are then able to develop strategies to cope with poverty and, ultimately, to transform the social structure.

The Lebert working paper on Attacking Poverty emphasized this aspect of human development. Intrinsic to their concept of human development, is Integral development which includes a spiritual dimension, sometimes also called a completeness dimension, because this integrates a reference to systems of thought, symbols, and beliefs which give meaning to the cosmos, history, and personal and collective life. This spiritual dimension integrates the desire of the human being to throw himself further than the confines of his being, beyond the finiteness of human existence. Wanting to grasp the spiritual dimension of development is to immediately run into the ambiguities of the word “spirituality” too often limited to a religious meaning. Thus, the Leberet working paper on Attacking Poverty takes spirituality as an effort made by individuals and groups to project themselves outside of themselves in order to give a sense to the limits of human existence. Such a spirituality is lived in man’s relation to his natural and social environment; it is expressed in values that can be prioritized in attitudes (Lebret, 1999).

Religion, religious practices, and beliefs form the basis of Indian society, irrespective of caste, creed, economic, educational or power status. The poor are as religious, if not more, than any other member of the Indian mosaic. What forms do their beliefs and practices take? Do these beliefs aid them in attaining a sense of well-being in the circumstances that they find themselves in? What is the mechanism? Aside from the social benefits mentioned earlier, what kind of solace do they attain? Aside from the truly irrational superstitions, how do their superstitions help them live their life in poverty? Do our concepts of karma and rebirth help to sustain the poor? In the context of the rural Indian, is there a link between living in the natural habitat, spirituality, and well-being? If satisfaction of primary needs is the basis of contentment and well-being, the logical conclusion is that those not living in poverty should be experiencing a sense of well-being. As we know, there is no truth in this logic. As psychologists, as scientists of the human condition, we need to ask these questions, even though the answers may be against our personal beliefs and worldview, for the simple reason that it is a reality of another’s worldview and beliefs.

It is not an uncommon experience that some very rich people are not happy and that some who are economically weak are not unhappy. The correlation between economic wealth and the overall well-being breaks down after a certain point as other factors enter prominently into the equation. Among them are values -- religion being a dominant player in value formation. Religious/spiritual beliefs and practices that are widely prevalent among the masses of India could be the potential aids being adopted by the poor. What is it that helps the poor live a life? This question is not so much raised as an intellectual curiosity as much as it is raised from the fact that the answers sheds light on humanity itself. To attempt an answer to this question, the Institute for Human Science & Service is exploring the sense of well-being, feelings of happiness and depression among the rural and urban poor. In the process, it is investigating the extent and role of religious beliefs and practices in coping with poverty. In exploring the role of religious beliefs and spirituality that are practiced/experienced by individuals, who are largely illiterate and uninfluenced by the rationalizations of the modern world, it is hoped that the study would present us an unadulterated worldview of a society, at the same time, help understand the dynamics of religious coping among the rural and urban economically poor population


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