The Social Impact of Personal Wellness
Relationships and health are vital parts of life. Whether it be relationships with family, friends or partners, the quality of these relationships is intimately tied with physical and emotional well-being.
Dr. Josh Novak, an assistant professor in the College of Human Sciences’ Department of Human Development and Family Science who specializes in the marriage and family therapy program, began this research in 2016. Since the beginning, he has used various forms of data collection, including psychosocial self-report, biomarkers and neurophysiological indicators to look at how relationship processes (communication, quality, supportiveness) might buffer or exacerbate health outcomes.
Looking at these processes, Novak said he wants to address the stigma in society of disease and illness existing at the individual level. Importantly, a lot of health disparities in society manifest at the family level, so his overall research goal focuses on creating family-level interventions.
“When one person is diagnosed with an illness or has a chronic disease or a physical health limitation it’s going to affect the whole family,” Novak said. “The family must rally around that person and change the way they function. I’ve seen a lot of interventions are driven at individual health but do not account for that social context. In my opinion, a lot of interventions and health promotion and prevention efforts fall short and do not create lasting changes, because they aren’t addressing that social context.”
Novak said he became interested in this research because health is something that is important to him, and he’s seen impactful health scenarios play out within his own family.
“I’ve noticed my own lifestyle behaviors impact how well my relationships are doing, including how well I’m sleeping, if I’m hangry or well-nourished, and how physically active I am,” Novak said. “I always say a healthy ‘we’ starts with a healthy ‘me.’ If your own mental or physical health is struggling, then taking care of that helps set the stage for better relationships and the interactions within those relationships.”
Novak’s research focuses on a variety of disease contexts, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and even dementias and explores how these conditions affect families and relationships. His research is interdisciplinary by nature, as he collaborates within Auburn and beyond, with faculty and students from pharmacy, nutrition, kinesiology, psychology, human development and family science and nursing.
“There are experts more equipped to look at nutritional habits, physical activity levels, and even physiological health indicators from blood and stool samples, so that’s why I’m collaborating with them,” Novak said. “I get them together and I say ‘hey, let’s look at this again at that family level’ and work on these projects because it requires a multidisciplinary approach. We’re relying on each other’s strengths and training and background to solve these complex problems that affect society.”
A result of collaborating with these various experts, one of Novak’s recent publications addresses family members’ experiences in diabetes management. Their research found four distinct types of family members in the way they view their family member’s illness, their own psychological well-being, and their involvement in diabetes management. Notably, the family members who were most involved had better health behaviors themselves, despite being either psychologically distressed or not worried about their partner’s health (because they were doing well managing diabetes). This makes a case for family-level intervention and programming—not just for better patient outcomes, but for the family members’ own psychological and physical well-being.
“My research specifically focuses on the bidirectional relationship, so noting that relationships can affect health, how the relationship functions, how couples and families communicate and even the ways they engage in food, sleep and exercise practices,” Novak said. “All of that comes from a shared environment and even affects how partners choose and select mates. We choose people who are similar to us in terms of interest and engagement in lifestyle behaviors and, through relationship processes, partners change each other over time. Once a disease or diagnosis occurs it can greatly impact how relationships function.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Novak had to pivot to mostly online data collection, specifically collecting data from multiple partners or multiple family members, not just one. Even with challenges related to the pandemic, Novak said his ultimate goal is to keep shining a light on the importance of relationship interventions.
“In science, on average, there’s a 17-year gap between when something is researched and when something is put in practice, which is really difficult,” Novak said. “My goal is to chip away at the narrative of individual intervention for societal problems through family-level health promotion and intervention.”
For more information on the College of Human Sciences’ Human Development and Family Science Department, visit humsci.auburn.edu/hdfs.