Carol D. Ryff
MIDUS Principal Investigator
Director, Institute on Aging
Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University
Hilldale Professor, Department of Psychology
Director, Institute on Aging
Understanding Positive Aging as an Integrated Biopsychosocial Process
My research addresses aging as a multidisciplinary challenge that requires integration of many levels of analysis: sociodemographic characteristics, psychosocial resources, life stresses, health behaviors and practices, neurobiological risk and protective factors, and health outcomes (mental and physical). We study the pathways through which these influences come together in longitudinal investigations, involving local, state, and national samples.
Well-Being. As a psychologist, I approach optimal aging in terms what key ingredients comprise healthy mental functioning. Our studies focus on six dimensions of well-being: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. We have shown that these qualities are contoured by sociodemographic characteristics (age, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, culture) as well as by the events and experiences that individuals confront (both unexpected life stresses and planned, normative transitions). We have also contrasted the above aspects of “eudaimonic” well-being with “hedonic” formulations, which emphasize happiness, positive affect, and life satisfaction. Religion and spirituality have most recently become part of our studies of well-being.
Positive Health. We define positive health as the neurophysiological substrates of flourishing. The key issue is how psychosocial well-being is linked with biology. Do such things as good quality relationships and purpose in life convey protection against adverse health outcomes, and if so, what are the intervening mechanisms? We pursue these questions by connecting assessments of well-being, broadly defined, to diverse biomarkers (cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, immune) and to neural circuitry. Such work demands collaborative, multidisciplinary teams, whose objective is to understand the biopsychosocial processes that contribute to good mind/body health and high life quality.
Resilience. The theme of resilience, which we define as the maintenance or recovery of health and well-being in the face of cumulative adversity, is prominent in our studies. Of interest is how people sustain positive outlooks and functional capacities as life challenges multiply, a question of considerable import in old age. We explore potential protective factors on multiple levels (biological, psychological, social). A primary forum for investigating resilience is MIDUS, a national survey of adults and the elderly, which thanks to NIA support, has become a longitudinal study with extensive psychosocial and biomarker assessments.