Ayla received the Paul Hager Graduate Research Award at the 2022 Kentucky Psychological Science Conference for her poster presentation entitled “Emerging Adults' Financial Stress and
Mental and Physical Health: Meaning in Life as a Moderator.” The project’s goal was to see if meaning in life would be a moderator, aka protective factor, such that emerging adults aged 18-29 experiencing financial stress would have better mental and physical health if they also had high meaning in life. It is important to identify factors that strengthen or weaken the negative relationship between financial stress and health, especially among emerging adults, who tend to experience a lot of financial stress due to growing economic inequalities, increasing student debt, and more.
This project separated meaning in life into presence of meaning (POM) and search for meaning (SFM). People often experience POM in the context of interpersonal relationships, religion/spirituality, work, and health. As for SFM, people often experience it during life transitions. For example, if you feel your life lacks meaning, you might switch jobs to try to find more meaning. On the other hand, if you have to move jobs and even locations for another reason (e.g., your partner’s job), your sense of meaning might destabilize and you might start looking for ways to re-stabilize it. Emerging adulthood is full of life transitions and role exploration, and emerging adults often experience more SFM than POM.
Ayla’s project found that, contrary to past research, POM was not a protective factor and did not weaken the negative relationships between financial stress and mental and physical health. However, SFM was a risk factor, strengthening the negative relationship between financial stress and physical, but not mental, health. Emerging adults high in financial stress and high in SFM tended to have worse physical health than emerging adults high in financial stress and low in SFM. This aligns with the theory that high SFM can create or exacerbate distress. Overall, it is important to identify those at higher risk for experiencing negative health consequences of financial stress, a group that may include emerging adults high in search for meaning.