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Current Projects

Functions of Personal Memory
Well-being in the Second Half of Life
Functions of Recent and Distant Memories
Stories of our Youth: The Reminiscence Bump
Self Continuity
Life Story Book

Death and Dying
“In Memoriam:” Identity Strivings in Emerging Adulthood
Dignity Therapy
Memories for the Dying Days
Remember Me as Virtuous

Resilience in the Life Story
Life Challenges and Resilience: The Role of Perceived Personality Continuity
Storying Life’s Challenges with Purpose
Young Adults’ Responses to the COVID-19 Outbreak: Views of Life, Death, and the Future


Well-being in the Second Half of Life

This study examines whether looking back in autobiographical time and one’s place in chronological time affect current well-being. Participants (N = 470) in the second half of life (age 50 – 90 years) completed a life story matrix, rating positive life events for perceived control, and influence on who they have become. They also reported negative and positive well-being. Findings show that recalling one’s self in the reminiscence bump years, not non-bump years, is related to well-being. While perceived control links to greater life satisfaction, viewing bump events as highly influential on the current self relates to lower self-esteem. Chronological age is associated with lower well-being but only very late in life. Findings are discussed in relation to the functional approach to autobiographical memory and lifespan developmental theory.


Functions of Recent and Distant Memories

Theory suggests that self- and memory-related factors influence use of autobiographical memory to serve adaptive functions in daily life. No research has empirically identified the factors that predict specific functional memory use (e.g., self-continuity, social-bonding, directing behavior). In two studies (Study One, N = 100; Study Two, N = 354), select self and memory factors were related to reports of functional memory use. Study Two replicated Study One findings and also included additional self-related variables. Across studies, self-relevant memories were more frequently reported to serve all functions. Beyond that, however, findings were function-specific. In terms of self-related factors: adults with lower self-concept clarity more frequently used memories to serve a self-continuity function. Trait personality predicted memory function, with extraversion related to the self-continuity function and neuroticism and agreeableness related to the social-bonding function. With respect to memory-related factors: recent memories were more likely than distant ones to serve self-continuity and directing-behavior functions. More negative memories were used for directing behavior and more positive memories were used for social bonding. Findings are discussed in terms of the multiple self- and memory-related factors that come into play to allow human use of memory to serve functions that help navigate daily life.


Stories of our Youth: The Reminiscence Bump

The reminiscence bump is well-established: adults in the second half of life remember inordinately more events from young adulthood. This report, introducing a new theoretical direction, investigates the adaptive value of such recall. We examine whether perceived control over bump events predicts current life satisfaction. Participants (N = 492, 49-90 years) reported the important events in their lives, rating perceived control over each. Life satisfaction and covariates were assessed. Perceived control over bump-year events (but not other past events) predicts life satisfaction, for all but the oldest participants. Recalling one’s past is discussed in relation to well-being across adulthood.


“In Memoriam:” Identity Strivings in Emerging Adulthood

In this study, Emerging adults provided an open-ended autobiographical self-defining memory narrative (Blagov & Singer, 2004) and three self-attributes representing how they would like to be remembered after death. Narratives were reliably content-coded for Fundamentality, (Baltes &Smith, 1990) and Event Type (Thorne & McLean, 2004), and self-attributes were reliably coded for Identity Strivings (Rammstedt & John, 2007; Ryff, 1989). The study investigates emerging adults’ identity in self-defining memories in terms of: (1) Fundamental vs. Non-Fundamental events, (2) Event Types, (3) Identity Strivings, (4) Interrelation of Fundamentality, Event Type,and Identity Striving, and (5) whether 1 – 3 differ by gender, personality, or death experience.


Self Continuity Project

Older and younger individuals face difficult events in their lives that can challenge their identity (e.g., loss of a loved one, illness, job loss) thereby negatively affect their psychological well-being. What psychological processes aid people in the face of such events? The current study examines how older and younger adults use personal memory of the events of their life (i.e., autobiographical memory) to maintain a continuous sense of self in the face of difficult events. Specifically, autobiographical reasoning (i.e., self-event and event-event connections) presented in narratives of challenging life events and one’s phase in life (i.e., age) are proposed to be key in predicting the experience of self-continuity. It is expected that autobiographical reasoning plays a mediating role linking the relation between age and experiential self-continuity in two adult age groups (N = 130; emerging adults, 18-27 years; older adults, 60-75 years).


Dignity Therapy

Maintaining dignity at the end of life can be challenging for cancer patients. Dignity Therapy (DT) is an intervention that guides a patient through a structured life review process, resulting in a written Legacy Document that can be shared with the patient’s family members and friends. Though research has demonstrated that patients and families feel they benefit from DT, there has been a call for research to understand mechanisms that produce positive patient outcomes. The current proposal involves a cross-college collaboration aimed at addressing this issue in a sample of 32 elderly cancer patients. We will examine the empathic process involved in DT delivery and the extent of important psychosocial themes (purpose in life, meaning-making and communion) in the final product, the Legacy Document. This work provides a feasibility assessment of our analytic methods with this population. Completion of this project will prepare the way for a larger NCI grant to analyze the full sample (N=280) that is being collected in the parent study. In terms of increasing quality of care at end-of-life, this study will lead to a better understanding of when DT is most efficacious. It will guide honing of the intervention to improve patient care, with the goal of achieving meaningful psychosocial benefits for end-of-life cancer patients and their families. The project goal is in line with Triple Aim in its focus on improving patient experience though partnering with individuals and families.


Memories for the Dying Days

Given the aging of the Baby Boomers, nearly twenty million American older adults will die over the next 10 years. Most will leave behind a widowed spouse (National Center for Health Statistics, 2014). Death of a loved one, particularly a spouse, is rated as one of life’s most stressful normative events (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). Research on spousal loss has mainly focused on grief symptomology or maladjustment immediately following loss, neglecting examination of the potential for positive outcomes that may emerge over time. One component of the end of a loved one’s life that may greatly impact grief trajectories and long-term outcomes is the setting in which the loved one died (for example, at home, in hospital). The quality of the spouse’s dying days, including the quality of the environment in which they die, is crucially important for the dying person and those who live on (Heyland et al., 2006). This project investigates the relation of place of death for older adults to their spouses’ memories from the dying days and subsequent grief and outcome trajectories. The goal is to establish underlying rationales for the importance of place of death in end-of-life care models, and to determine which environment is most likely to foster positive memories from the dying days that can lead to lasting positive outcomes for those who are now widowed.


Remember Me as Virtuous

During a funeral or memorial service, it is common to share stories from the life of the deceased. These stories can be considered Self-Defining Memories (SDMs; Singer et al., 2013), described as depicting the person’s true identity. Ultimate SDMs explored in this project represent the single memory by which individuals state they would like to be remembered after death. The project investigates the content of ultimate SDMs to identify enduring themes across memories. Specifically, we examine whether these memories include Universal Virtues (e.g., Peterson & Seligman, 2004). A preliminary study was recently conducted to determine the feasibility of coding Ultimate SDMs for Universal virtues with Young Adults. The majority of participants told narratives representing virtuous qualities. Humanity was the most frequent virtue found in this age group. A second study is now being conducted to identify virtues in Ultimate SDMs from individuals across the life span (i.e., young, middle, and older adults), and to understand whether virtues will be more often included in SDMs told within the context of remembrance after death (i.e., versus a control condition focused on a story of oneself in the present). Participants will be recruited into two story sharing contexts: Remember Me and Present Me, before narrating their SDMs. Differences across age groups and study conditions will be examined. Questionnaires about psychological wellbeing and personality trait characteristics will also be completed by participants so that relations being these self-reported measures and narrative features can be explored.


Life Challenges and Resilience: The Role of Perceived Personality Continuity

Several aspects of positive self-functioning increase as we age (Diehl & High, 2011). Although stressful life events affect mental health across adulthood, the aging self may show resilience despite life challenges through feelings of personality continuity. Using moderated mediation analyses, this study determines how stressful events affect self-functioning in young and older adults, and investigates subjective personality continuity as a buffer. Participants (N = 99 young adults, 87 older adults) reported the number of stressful events experienced in the last six years (Life Experiences Survey) and completed self-functioning measures (i.e., self-concept clarity, self-esteem, self-acceptance). Personality continuity, feeling one’s trait personality is similar to six years ago, was also measured. Older adults scored higher on all self-functioning variables (Aim 1; ps < .001). Experiencing more stressful events was associated with lower self-concept clarity, < .01, and self-esteem, p < .001, particularly for younger adults (Aim 2; < .05). Despite stereotypes, older adults report higher self-concept clarity, esteem, and acceptance. Stressful events at any age, however, can challenge the self. For older adults, the feeling of being the same person over time, regardless of stressful events, supports resilient aging.


Storying Life’s Challenges with Purpose

Study one examines whether narrating memories of challenging life events with a greater extent of sense of purpose is an internal resource for resilience in adulthood. It investigates, in both young and older adults, whether content-coded sense of purpose in participants’ narratives buffers potential negative effects of those challenges on two markers of resilience: eudaimonic well-being and episodic memory performance. Perceiving higher self-disruption when recalling challenging life events is expected to relate to both lower eudaimonic well-being and episodic memory in both age groups. Age moderation of these perceived self-disruption effects, however, is expected: that is, young adults are expected to show greater vulnerability on eudaimonic well-being whereas older adults are expected to show greater negative effects on episodic memory. For both young and older adults, narrating recent challenging life events with a sense of purpose is expected to buffer these relations.

Study two highlights purpose and resilient aging in older adults. In contrast to the bulk of research on sense of purpose that uses quantitative, scalar methods, this study utilizes qualitative methods (i.e, consensual qualitative research) to examine sense of purpose. It explores two central questions. First, to what extent does storying narratives of challenging life events with a sense of purpose foster resilience? Second, what factors contribute to older adults having developed a sense of purpose? Fifteen older adults, 65 and older, will be recruited from Gainesville, FL and the greater Alachua County area. One-on-one interviews will be conducted to explore the central research questions of this study.


Life Story Book

Providing care for people suffering from dementia is a critical public health issue in many parts of the world, particularly countries with rapidly aging populations such as Florida. An unavoidable consequence of dementia is the loss of personal memories. Dementia has even been referred to as “the little death” because the loss of memory eventually results in a loss of self. After all, our personal memories constitute a crucial part of who we are. In recent years, reminiscence activities, in which people are guided to recall memories from their lives, have become increasingly popular but, so far, results have been mixed. In this study, we will develop and evaluate a new, innovative, type of reminiscence activity that addresses previous shortcomings. We will create digital life story books based on crucial memory principles to help people with dementia remember their lives. We intend to show that this adjusted reminiscence activity will stimulate people’s memories and thereby preserve a sense of self over time compared to more traditional reminiscence activities and care as usual.


Young Adults’ Responses to the COVID-19 Outbreak: Views of Life, Death, and the Future

The COVID-19 outbreak has led to rapid changes in everyday life around the world. The current cohort of young adults in the US have no previous experience with global historical events shaping their life circumstances. How are they responding? The pandemic is creating uncertainty in young adults’ hopes and plans for the future and also brings human mortality closely into focus. Researchers in the UF Life Story Lab have responded quickly, designing studies to address these issues.

The first study in progress is based on data from before (September-October 2018), at the time of (March-April 2020), and well after (July-August 2020) the WHO announced COVID-19 as a global pandemic. The research is thus able to assess change over this critical time period, in: (i) Future Time Perspective, (ii) Attitudes towards Death (e.g., acceptance of one’s own and others’ deaths), and (iii) Pros and Cons of Advance Care Planning. We expect these young adults to experience shortened time perspective during the pandemic and explore both positive and negative effects on their death attitudes and views of the importance of having plans in place for end-of-life decision-making.

The second study in progress (March-April 2020) examines young adults’ personal health risk perceptions and level of stress in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. It will assess how perceived levels of risk/ personal stress may influence one’s life ahead in terms of the extent to which individuals view the future as optimistic and full of possibility, the expected timing for future life-scripted events (i.e., graduation, finding a partner, having a child), and the content of their narratives about their future, in the coming year. We expect young adults with high levels of perceived risk/stress regarding the COVID-19 outbreak to envision their future as more contaminated (i.e., stories with positive beginning but negative endings) and less redemptive (i.e., stories with negative beginnings but positive endings) and with fewer, more delayed, and less positive life script events (both self-reported and content coded). This study also investigates how internal psychological resources, such as adaptive use of one’s own past life experience, level of resilience, gratitude, and sense of control may moderate any negative effects of perceived risk/stress on young adults’ views of what their future may hold, as we move into the post-pandemic era.