Most people are familiar with the prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Usually called the Serenity Prayer, it embodies a fundamental principle encouraged by Alcoholics Anonymous: self-forgiveness.

Forgiving ourselves for actions that result in a negative impact on us or on others is difficult for most people, and especially for farmers. Let’s take a look at why this is.

Recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics indicate an increase in theft and fraud on farms by both farmers and non-farmers during the current era of economic strife, although the vast majority of agricultural producers are honest, hard-working people who refrain from purposeful misdeeds. The persons who do not take responsibility for their misdeeds often exhibit antisocial personality disorder and engage in criminal behaviors without remorse.

The latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists the criteria for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder as the following, in abbreviated fashion: failure to conform to social norms, lying and other forms of deceitfulness, impulsivity, irritability, and aggressiveness, disregard for others, repeated failure to honor obligations, and lack of remorse.

Very few farmers exhibit antisocial personality disorder or engage in criminal behavior. Indeed, most successful producers of agricultural goods exhibit polar opposite behaviors, according to Joyce Willock and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, in a study of 252 farmers (242 men, 10 women) in the late 1990s. The personality traits they found to be most predictive of success by Scottish farmers included conscientiousness, willingness to take risks in order to be optimally productive, and self-reliance.

In 2001 Marilyn Shrapnel and Jim Davie of the University of Queensland found similar traits among the 60 Australian farmers they evaluated. They identified five key personality traits: strong perseverance in endeavors, a great capacity to cope with adversity, comfort with self-reliance and working alone, self-confidence in their own decisions, and little need to reach out for assistance beyond a small circle of friends.

If these behavioral styles of farmers are familiar that’s possible because they are characteristics of the agrarian imperative, a subject I often write about. I have proposed a theory that the agrarian imperative is a basic human drive to acquire the land and other resources needed to produce food, fibers, and bioenergy, all of which are essential for human survival.

This drive has both instinctual components that are genetically programmed into our DNA and behavioral traits that have been acquired through learning into the habits of successful agricultural producers. The ongoing process of survival of the fittest over multiple generations of farmers has concentrated both the genetic drive and the learned behaviors that are passed along to successive generations of the most successful farmers.

Data supporting the agrarian imperative theory are accruing from scientific studies of successful agriculturalists in Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. Importantly, the genetic inclinations and behavioral traits of perseverance in the face of adversity, self-reliance, risk-taking, and a tendency to keep problems to themselves can contribute to farmers’ success, but these same factors can also work against them.

Fiona Judd and her colleagues compared the rates of mental health problems like anxiety and depression and the behavioral traits of 371 farmers with those of 380 non-farm rural Australian residents in 2005. The farmers and the non-farmers did not differ in their rates of mental health problems, but the farmers exhibited significantly higher levels of conscientiousness, risk-taking, and a tendency to keep problems to themselves.

The higher their levels of these behaviors, the more likely these farmers were to be successful, but also to experience mental health problems and to avoid seeking help.

Self-forgiveness is particularly important for farmers who take too much responsibility for their actions, especially for mistakes. Agricultural producers can’t adequately control many of the factors that affect their livelihoods, such as harsh weather events, and the now-regular shifts in climate, government policies that affect agriculture, global production, and consumer preferences.

But farmers and other persons who exhibit a powerful agrarian urge can choose whether or not to modify the negative aspects of inherited and learned behaviors. These persons can take steps to manage their behavior by learning skills to enhance positive coping and self-forgiveness, such as the following:

  • Initiate behaviors that can improve decision-making, such as forming a team of advisors that includes expertise in areas where needed
  • Become better informed about beneficial behavior management tactics by reading relevant literature that can be applied to modify excessive negative thinking
  • Construct a farm operating plan with the team and develop a sensible timetable to carry out the plan, including a strategy to exit from the operation when age, health, or operating conditions prohibit profitable and optimal functioning
  • Practice diversions from thinking about past events that were mistakes and can’t be changed, by recognizing negative brooding and instead engage in positive discussion with others, exercise, prayer, and any other activities that promote moving ahead
  • Construct a schedule with short breaks from work throughout the day, recreation, vacations, times for conferencing with family and advisors, social events, and meditation to promote well-being and diminish self-blaming
  • Practice self-forgiveness with others who can be trusted to provide honest and useful feedback
  • Seek professional behavioral health counseling when the previous steps are insufficient to achieve better adjustment
  • Keep prescribed medications available if needed to assist with sleeping, reducing anxiety and depression
  • Keep a list of phone numbers and email addresses to contact for healthcare, counseling, and such emergency situations as suicidal thinking
  • Maintain a journal that documents progress and mistakes and review the journal from time to time
  • Celebrate personal behavioral management advances, such as increased self-satisfaction, sobriety, and so forth, with others, like family members and the team of advisors

The Serenity Prayer helps those of us who are prone to self-blame and self-forgiveness. It calms us and steers us in positive life directions.