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The Relocation and Transitional Experiences (RELATE) Study: Elucidating Pathways to Character via Individual and Dyadic Approaches

Character strengths and virtues, such as altruism, humility, gratitude, relatedness, empathy, and open-mindedness, have been linked to a meaningful life and adaptive psychosocial functioning, including affective well-being, life satisfaction, and greater social support and integration (e.g., Aghababaei, Mohammadtabar, & Saffarinia, 2014; Ciarrochhi & Deneke, 2005; Post, 2005; Shimai, Otake, Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006). Thus in recent decades, there has been a growing interest in understanding how character virtues may show positive development, particularly in the face of adversity.  For example, people report experiencing personal growth, a deeper appreciation for life, and a reprioritization of life goals following traumatic or stressful experiences (e.g., Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).  Many previous studies, however, have used retrospective reports, whereby people will recall past experiences after the event has occurred. These types of reports may be subject to recall biases, in which people tend to remember experiencing growth and being better than they once were. It is therefore unclear to what extent true growth can occur from adversity, above and beyond recall biases. Moreover, many previous studies did not use a longitudinal multi-method approach to better understand the many dimensions of character strengths and changes over time. Given the limitations of prior studies, however, few investigations have been able to disentangle the potential mechanisms that may explain how and why positive changes in character virtues are possible following stressful life experiences.

Multi-method, prospective, longitudinal studies are necessary to track character virtues before and after adverse events occur to be able to examine associated changes.  One particularly relevant study population is older adults, as these individuals are living longer lives and need to learn to adapt to functional limitations and situational constraints.  Relocation of older adults into a senior living environment is a major life stressor that is common in later adulthood, is often permanent for older adults, and requires adaptation and coping efforts that may lead to long-term changes in character virtues.  For these reasons, we are conducting the Relocation and Transitional Experiences (RELATE) study, a 3.5 month longitudinal study among both individuals and close partners, who are at least 50 years old and relocating into a senior housing facility (e.g., independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing).  We are interested in studying partners in order to understand how partners and relationships may influence psychological growth and changes as people transition through major life events together. 

Participants in the study are assessed at 4 time points (or study bursts): 2 weeks prior to relocation into a senior housing facility, 2 weeks after relocation, 1.5 months after relocation, and 3 months after relocation.  During each burst, participants complete global (trait) measures of character virtues via paper-and-pencil questionnaires and ecological momentary assessments (EMA) via mobile phones. These EMA surveys allow us to better understand daily experiences of stress and character behaviors (e.g., empathy, altruism). In addition to self-reported data, participants also wear wrist-actigraphs, which track physical activity and sleep-wake cycles using accelerometry.  The actigraphs will provide objective physical activity data that will help us contextualize daily life behaviors and their links to changes in character virtues. For example, participants who are more mobile may have more opportunities for social interactions, which would increase the possibility of engaging in empathetic or prosocial behaviors.

We are currently collecting data from participants and plan to enroll approximately 200 older adults by the end of the study period.  We hope that our research will allow us to answer a number of questions, including: 1) To what extent do we observe prospective changes in character virtues, especially as they differ in time scales across moments, days, weeks, and months? 2) How do partners differ and influence one another with respect to changes in character virtues during their transition to senior housing? 3) Which individual differences (e.g., personality traits, greater intraindividual variability) and contextual factors (e.g., experience of daily stressors) might influence these processes?

References:

Aghababaei, N., Mohammadtabar, S., & Saffarinia, M. (2014). Dirty Dozen vs. H factor: Comparison of the Dark Triad and honest-humility in prosociality, religiosity, and happiness. Personality and Individual Differences, 67, 6-10.

Ciarrocchi, J. W., & Deneke, E. (2005). Happiness and the varieties of religious experience: Religious support, practices, and spirituality as predictors of well-being. Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 15, 209-233.

Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12, 66-77.

Shimai, S., Otake, K., Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Convergence of character strengths in American and Japanese young adults. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 311.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1-18.