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What makes families flourish or flounder? 5 studies you might have missed

From where people want to live and why it matters to what faith and community offer families

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

A slew of sociologists, demographers, academics, psychologists and others are trying to understand the factors that help people to thrive. And, of course, what does the opposite.

Using controlled trials, surveys, longitudinal studies and more, they peek into life in America and look at what’s happening in homes, classrooms and workplaces. Part of the work of a journalist is to pick through all that research to see what people need to know to build joyful, successful lives.

As a reporter, I sometimes find it a little overwhelming to try to do justice to the growing body of knowledge about what we can learn from each other or how we can help each other. This year, I covered a lot of findings — and left some really important things out, too, because there wasn’t time or I was looking at something else.

Here are five of the reports that deserved attention that I didn’t get around to covering:

Being part of a religious community offers great benefits, according to research from Harvard University’s Human Flourishing program based on several studies they’ve done.

In a recent year-end summary published in Psychology Today, Tyler J. VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted the positive impact of participating in a faith community, “including preventing depression and suicide, extending longevity, improving marital outcomes, facilitating happiness, meaning, forgiveness and hope.”

He wrote that “the size of the effects of religious community participation tend to exceed those of other forms of social participation. With regard to effects on mortality, suicide and cardiovascular disease, the effects of religious service participation are larger than for any other social participation indicator examined, including marriage, time spent with friends, with family, hours spent in other community groups or even their composite.”

But he warns that the research doesn’t mean going to services should be a “universal prescription.” Rather, the data provides an “invitation back into communal religious life for those who might already positively self-identify with a religious tradition.” Those who don’t should make sure they have other forms of community life, he said.

Women who are kind to themselves are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, even when they have risk factors like high blood pressure, insulin resistance and less-than-ideal cholesterol levels, according to University of Pittsburgh research published in Health Psychology.

“A lot of research has been focused on studying how stress and other negative factors may impact cardiovascular health, but the impact of positive psychological factors such as self-compassion is far less known, Rebecca Thurston, professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology and psychology at the university, said in written background material.

Using tools like meditation that increased mindfulness and self-compassion, women who scored higher had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque buildup than those who scored lower. Those indicators are risk factors for heart disease, including heart attacks and strokes even years later.

The results held up when the researchers controlled for behaviors and other psychological factors like physical activity level, smoking and symptoms of depression.

Student debt “increasingly serves as a strong disincentive for marriage and childbearing,” even though college-educated people are now the most apt to marry, compared to those with less education, according to a research brief published earlier this year by the Council on Contemporary Families.

The full study by Arielle Kuperberg of the University of North Carolina Greensboro and Joan Maya Mazelis of Rutgers University-Camden, published in Sociological Inquiry, found that more than three years after college graduation, just 9% of former students had completely paid off their loans, though far fewer were living with parents or roommates or working jobs they didn’t like, compared to those who expected that would be their story.

“Just 41% of the graduates with loans had ended up using these strategies during the time between graduation and our 2020 follow-up interviews,” the duo wrote. “And while almost 32% of students had anticipated having to delay children until their loans were paid off, only 20% of the graduates with loans whom we surveyed reported actually doing this, while 18% said they were delaying marriage.”

Many said they’d taken out loans planning that their degrees would get them a better job, something that only 21% of the graduates said actually happened.

The researchers concluded that student loan debt combined with the economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is stopping “many from forming the families they would like to have,” among other impacts.

It’s worth noting that student loan debt collection has been paused temporarily during the pandemic. But the debt remains.

Stressful life events in childhood are important factors in a child’s well-being and can have lifelong effects on that child’s mental or physical health, according to a data briefing by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Stressful life events include witnessing or experiencing abuse or neglect, seeing violence in one’s community or living with someone who abuses drugs or alcohol or who has a mental illness. Parental incarceration is another example of a stressful life event.

The brief’s authors, Heidi Ullmann, Julie D. Weeks and Jennifer H, Madans, all Ph.D.s, found that in 2019 nearly 1 in 14 children were victims of or witnessed violence in their neighborhood. Exposure increased with age, from 5.6% of children ages 5 to 12, to 8.5% for children 13 to 17.

They also found that 6.5% of children had lived with a parent or guardian who had been incarcerated. The share was highest for children living in nonmetro areas, at 9.4%. A higher percentage of non-Hispanic black children (8.2%) had lived with a parent who served time, compared with non-Hispanic white children (6.6%) and Hispanic children (5.6%).

Nearly 1 in 10 children had lived with someone who had an alcohol or drug problem. Among those ages 13-17, the share rose to more than 1 in 8. It was less common in large central metropolitan areas than in rural communities.

Researchers concluded that “understanding sociodemographic disparities in stressful life events among children may inform policy for prevention and support initiatives.”

COVID-19 opened up new options for families to choose where they want to live — and many aren’t where they want to be, according to a just-released Pew Research Center Survey.

Researchers noted that remote work has proven that many families don’t have to live in urban centers for work. And fewer people say they would choose city life, compared to before the pandemic.

In the nationally representative survey of nearly 10,000 U.S. adults, the share of adults who say they’d like to live in urban areas dropped to 19%, compared to 23% pre-pandemic. Those preferring suburbs increased to 46% from 42%.

Nearly a third say it’s important to live in a place with a strong sense of community — “especially the case among those who live in rural and urban areas,” the Pew report said. But especially important is “living in an area that’s a good place to raise children” (58%).

A growing share also says that affordable housing is a major problem in their area, at 49%. That’s up 10 percentage points from 2018.

Experts have told the Deseret News many times that where people want to live matters in many ways that stretch far beyond families, impacting the economy, where schools are built, where businesses locate and more.

In case you missed it

Here’s some of the family-focused research we did cover in 2021: