“It Depends”: the Psychology of Health, Stress and Daily Life
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor in NC State’s Department of Psychology. The piece is part of the ongoing Research Matters series, in which NC State researchers address the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
There’s a long-standing joke in my department that the best answer to nearly any question about psychology is, “it depends.” Is it good to feel you have lots of control over your life? Is stress always bad? Is exercise always good? It depends. This answer can be frustrating for students (or anyone) hoping for a straightforward response, but it speaks to the diversity of human experiences and situations.
In my lab, we engage in studies focused on the dynamic interplay of individual differences and day-to-day changes important for health and well-being. We focus on daily experiences because work from my lab and others’ consistently shows that major events like death of a loved one, while important, are less powerful in their impact on health and well-being than the seemingly minor and common daily stresses like arguments. We use daily diary methods to obtain repeated measurements from people during their daily lives to capture their ups and downs.
Typically, participants self-report on events, experiences, behaviors and emotional states for a set number of consecutive days. Although the questions do not change from day to day, the expectation is that the participants’ responses can change, capturing the natural changes in mood and behavior people experience in their daily lives. By obtaining information about actual events and behaviors in someone’s life over short-term intervals, daily diaries help paint a picture of real life outside of a standard laboratory setting. We can also ask questions about changes within a person rather than focusing only on differences between people.
For example, instead of asking whether individuals with high levels of work stress experience more distress than individuals with less stressful jobs, we can ask whether a worker experiences more distress on days when he or she has too many deadlines compared to days when work has been stress free. Charting an individual’s day-to-day fluctuations allows us to identify what comes before, during and after events in that person’s life and the way they perceive their own well-being.
The ups and downs of daily life are not the same for everyone. That is, one’s ups and downs depend on who you are. Although increases in stress are typically linked with worse mood and increased health problems, those links depend on socioeconomic status (e.g., low education and/or low income), perceptions of control, emotional complexity (the ability to experience positive and negative feelings at the same time), childhood relationships with parents, attitudes about aging and actual age. People with low socioeconomic status, those who don’t feel like they have much control over their lives, those with relatively harsh relationships with their parents as children, those who tend to experience positive or negative emotions (but not both at the same time), those with worse attitudes about aging and younger people are more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress.
Stated another way, people with those characteristics are more likely to experience a steep increase in the negative consequences of stress on a daily basis, and people with the opposite characteristics are more “resilient” – meaning they are less negatively affected by stress.
Likewise, increases in memory problems follow increases in stress, especially for those who consistently report high levels of negative affect or mood.
When we have examined the benefits of daily exercise and physical activity, we see that these benefits also depend on who you are. Specifically, daily physical activity has benefits for older adults’ memory, but not for younger adults and those in midlife. And for very specific aspects of memory, like whether how busy a day is affects someone’s remembering to take medication, findings depend on how old you are. Younger adults remember to take their medication most on days when they are busy, but older adults remember to take their medication most on days when they are not busy.
So why is it important to understand that answers to questions regarding health and stress in daily life depend on who you are? First, a one-size-fits all approach to enhancing health and well-being would not work. An intervention promoting physical activity to boost memory would likely work for older adults but not necessarily for others. Second, any intervention should target relevant aspects of day-to-day life, such as stress reduction, along with important individual characteristics, such as improving attitudes about aging. Lastly, as our work shows, daily health and well-being may depend on many factors simultaneously. Even with older adults, the effectiveness of an intervention could depend on other factors about the person such as personality or how busy the day was.
We consistently see that the relationships between daily events, experiences, behaviors and emotional states depend on important characteristics between people. It is important to remember that people are constantly interacting with their (changing) environments, so if we are to understand these complex relationships we need to consider both. As frustrating as it might be, “it depends” appears to be the right answer.
All of this is important because we want to know how people interact with, and respond to, the stresses and activities of daily life – both good and bad. Why do different people respond to similar situations in different ways? The more we learn, the better able we will be to make decisions that promote our own well-being and that of others.