Iowa State University
INDEX A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

12-22-06

Contacts:

Carolyn Cutrona, Institute of Social and Behavioral Research, (515) 294-6784, ccutrona@iastate.edu

Mike Ferlazzo, News Service, (515) 294-8986, ferlazzo@iastate.edu

ISU research on African-American women concurs with "The Pursuit of Happyness"

AMES, Iowa -- In the new hit movie "The Pursuit of Happyness," the African-American male character Chris Gardner and his 5-year-old son are evicted from their San Francisco apartment with nowhere to go. But when Gardner lands an internship at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, he and his son use resourcefulness and optimism to overcome their many hardships and find a better way of life.

While the feel-good plot sounds like pure Hollywood, it's based on the autobiography of Gardner, who is now owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings. And according to a study by an Iowa State researcher, African-American women from depressed neighborhoods who have resourceful personalities and a sense of optimism can also immunize themselves against depression following life's setbacks.

Professor of Psychology Carolyn Cutrona, who is director of the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research at Iowa State, has been leading research on the impact of neighborhood, personality and stressful life events on depression in approximately 800 African-American women -- half from Des Moines and Waterloo in Iowa, and the other half from Athens and the suburbs of Atlanta in Georgia. Only a third of the subjects were living in economically depressed neighborhoods, with the rest being from more affluent areas -- with family income up to $200,000. Funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Cutrona has been studying these women for the past 10 years, and received another $2.8 million grant from NIH last summer to continue her research for five more years.

She joined with ISU students Gail Wallace and Kristin Wesner to summarize her research thus far in a paper titled "Neighborhood Characteristics and Depression: An Examination of Stress Processes," which was published this week in the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a professional journal.

"The stress imposed by adverse neighborhoods increases depression above and beyond the effects of the individual's own personal stressors, such as poverty and negative events within the family, or workplace," wrote the researchers in the paper. "Furthermore, adverse neighborhoods appear to intensify the harmful impact of personal stressors and interfere with the formation of bonds between people, again increasing risk of depression. Neighborhoods do not affect all people in the same way. People with different personality characteristics adjust in different ways to challenging neighborhoods."

The researchers have been videotaping the subjects and their interactions with their husbands within their homes throughout the study. They've assessed marital quality through the amount of warmth or hostility/criticism displayed during the communication.

"On average, couples living in more disadvantaged neighborhoods showed less warmth in the different ways they communicated with one another," said Cutrona.

Her research found that among African-American women -- all of whom had experienced at least one severe negative life event in the past year -- only 2 percent of those who lived in low-stress neighborhoods experienced the onset of a major depressive episode, as compared to 12 percent of those who lived in high-stress neighborhoods. The American Psychiatric Association's diagnosis for "major depression" was used -- identifying the following symptoms in an individual:

  • A sad or empty mood.
  • A distorted thought process involving exaggerated pessimism, hopelessness, and self-criticism.
  • Physiological symptoms such as fatigue, changes in appetite, and sleep abnormalities.

"The diagnosis looks for five of those symptoms to be present every day, or almost every day, for a period of two weeks," said Cutrona.

But while women from the economically depressed areas were at greater risk for major depression following negative life events -- such as the arrest or illness of a family member, or racial discrimination in the workplace -- individual character was found to ultimately determine their fate.

"Some people with particularly resilient personalities can cope successfully, even in dangerous and disorderly neighborhoods," the researchers wrote. "However, other people are highly vulnerable to depression when they live in adverse surroundings. It may be that living in a disadvantaged and disorderly neighborhood eventually erodes optimism and replaces it with hopelessness and negativity."

Cutrona has been impressed by the personal triumph she's witnessed in some women living in those depressed neighborhoods.

"It's extraordinary, I think, how well many African American families do -- particularly the strength of African American women has impressed me," said Cutrona. "Despite the disadvantages of poverty, of racism, of discrimination, so many women do so well. In fact, I saw recently a statistic that said that black women with college degrees earn more than white women with college degrees."

And apparently it's character that may count most in the pursuit of happiness -- allowing some to overcome, like Gardner.

-30-

Cutrona

Carolyn Cutrona

Quick look

According to a study by Iowa State Professor of Psychology Carolyn Cutrona, African-American women from depressed neighborhoods who have resourceful personalities and a sense of optimism can also immunize themselves against depression following life's setbacks.

Quote

"It's extraordinary, I think, how well many African-American families do -- particularly the strength of African-American women has impressed me. Despite the disadvantages of poverty, of racism, of discrimination, so many women do so well. In fact, I saw recently a statistic that said that black women with college degrees earn more than white women with college degrees."

Carolyn Cutrona