Some of the findings from our recent research studies are posted below. The results have been summarized and are intended to provide the general public with some basic information about our research interests and how well-being, stress and health are related. More comprehensive and detailed results can be found in the published articles listed under publications and in the conference posters produced by PSYCH 492 classes.
Between-Person Versus Within-Person Change
It is well-known that different people will score differently on various measures of well-being, which include:
- personal growth
- positive and negative affect
- life satisfaction
- However, these scores also change within individuals over time, influenced by daily events and experiences
- Most research on well-being asks one global question at one period in time, but this may not yield the most accurate measurement of a person’s level of well-being. It is more precise to ask several questions on several different occasions to see their true level
- Measuring well-being on the individual level also shows us how well-being can change on a daily basis, and the types of factors that are associated with this change. Identifying such factors enables us to understand how to help people maximize well-being in their lives and experience optimum quality of life
Factors Affecting Well-Being
- â€‹The five-factor model of personality includes the dimensions of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Personality, as measured by this model, is considered a stable trait with little variation over the lifespan
- â€‹Research studies with University of Victoria undergraduate students showed an association between some personality traits and well-being; for example, people who score highly on neuroticism are more likely than others to have lower well-being scores
- â€‹One's feelings of negative affect, life satisfaction, self-acceptance and autonomy on a given day are influenced by the previous day’s levels and experiences. However, personality can moderate this effect – people who score highly on agreeableness are quicker to recover from negative affect than others.
Figure 1. Agreeableness moderates the effect of yesterday’s negative affect on today’s negative affect. That is, people who score highly on agreeableness are less likely to have two days in a row with a poor mood than individuals who have lower agreeableness.
- Stress is known to negatively affect several aspects of cognition by creating cognitive interference, or intrusive, off-task thoughts that interfere with normal task-oriented thinking
- People who report that they have many stressors and/or high stress severity are more likely to also report low positive affect and high negative affect
- Work with University of Victoria students showed a negative relationship between multiple aspects of well-being and stress severity
- Such research demonstrates the importance of monitoring and coping with stress to increase positive affect and feelings of well-being. Health care staff and caregivers can help older adults find effective coping strategies to maintain or improve quality of life
Figure 2. Results showed that participants who reported high stress severity scored highly on cognitive interference and negative affect (poor mood).
- A variety of lifestyle and health determinants are likely to account for individual differences and within-person variation in affect and well-being
- In a daily survey study, University of Victoria undergraduate students were asked questions about sleep, physical activity, nutrition, time spent outdoors, physical ailments and health behaviours (e.g. smoking, alcohol and caffeine intake)
- Each of these lifestyle determinants was found to be important, which demonstrates both the complexity of well-being as well as how it can change on a daily basis. It is very important for older individuals to monitor their sleep habits, amount of exercise and nutrition to maintain well-being
â€‹Figure 3. Our results showed that individuals who had exercised on a given day scored higher on several aspects of well-being (including positive affect, vitality, life satisfaction and engagement) than people who had not exercised that day.
â€‹D. Social Support Networks
- The quality and quantity of social contacts and perceived social support network affects one’s perceived level of well-being
- Research with University of Victoria undergraduate students has shown that people who spent time with family or friends, had a hug or kiss, helped someone or volunteered scored higher on aspects of well-being
- Such results are in accordance with similar work and emphasizes the importance of continued social involvement and meaningful social contact across the lifespan
â€‹Factors Affecting Cognition
- Research has shown that stress can negatively affect cognitive abilities such as processing speed and working memory
- These results are consistent with theories that postulate stress-related cognitive interference competes for attentional resources
- Research with undergraduate students at the University of Victoria showed poorer performance on cognitive tests on days when students reported heightened stress severity and number of stressors
Figure 4. With higher reported stressor severity (left), participants’ reaction times on the Multi-Source Interference Task were higher, indicating that high perceived stress competes for cognitive resources. Participants who reported more stressors (right) also had higher reaction times on the Multi-Source Interference Task than participants who reported fewer stressors. This is also an indication that feeling stressed can negatively impact cognitive performance.
- Positive health behaviours and social support networks may act as moderators against the negative impacts of stress on cognition
- High stress is associated with increased consumption of high-fat snacks, caffeine and cigarettes, as well as with decreased physical activity and consumption of vegetables
- Low perceived social networks and emotional support is associated with increased smoking, physical inactivity, weight gain and alcohol consumption
- Research with University of Victoria undergraduate students showed that quality of sleep and use of social support were significant predictors of the number of stressors reported, stress severity and perceived stress.
- Results from this study inform us as to how stress can be better managed over time. Use of social support networks and quality sleep habits seem to provide individuals with a buffer against the negative effects of stress on affect and cognitive performance over time.
â€‹Figure 5. Participants who reported using a social support network were more likely to report more stressors (left) and higher stress severity (right) than people who did not use a social support network. This indicates that people use social support as a coping mechanism against high perceived stress. However, the high degree of variation in these ratings indicate that social support use is not the only factor that influences the effects of stress.
- Change in gait is associated with physical brain changes in older adults
- With increased age, cognitive processes are compromised when multi-tasking or dividing attention, such as walking while performing a cognitive task. This is because the demand for cognitive resources is twice as high
- Research with University of Victoria undergraduate students showed better cognitive performance in individuals who had a faster gait, longer step length and wider step width than those with a slower and narrower walk
- Both gait and cognitive performance were negatively affected by increased stress and positively affected by hours of sleep
Figure 6. Relationship between Multi-Source Interference Task reaction times and normalized gait velocity (a), step length (b) and step width (c). Faster, longer and wider walks were associated with better dual-tasking cognitive performance, suggesting gait may act as a protective buffer against the cognitive changes associated with higher age.