Momentary Emotions and Physiological Stress Levels in the Everyday Lives of Working Parents (WP-03-01)


Emma K. Adam

Recent “biosocial” perspectives on the family recognize ongoing interactions between the environments in which families live, family and individual functioning, and multiple aspects of their biology and physiology (Booth, Carver, and Granger 2000). From this perspective, one cannot understand individuals’ or families’ behavior without understanding their biological and physiological states. Also, biology and health cannot be understood outside of references to social contexts. Yet rarely are both family processes and biological processes well measured, and rarely have researchers investigated the relations between social and biological processes in day-to-day contexts. In this study, a sub-sample of 101 mothers and fathers from the Sloan Family Study provided two days of semi-random momentary diary reports and samples of saliva, from which levels of the stress-sensitive hormone cortisol were determined. Cortisol levels were related to mothers’ and fathers’ momentary mood states, their feelings about the activities they were engaged in, and their location at certain points throughout the day—at home, in public, or at work. Using a Hierarchical Linear Model (HLM) growth curve to control for time of day, cortisol levels were found to be higher when parents were experiencing negative emotions. They were found to be lower when they experienced positive social emotions, felt hardworking and productive, and enjoyed—and felt deeply engaged in—challenging activities. Feelings of productivity and engagement in activities were most frequently experienced at work. Adam’s results suggest that parents’ emotional experiences in their daily settings are meaningfully related to an aspect of their physiological functioning—their cortisol levels. This might illuminate how social experiences could “get under the skin” to affect health.

Emma K. Adam, Human Development and Social Policy and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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