Purpose May Prevent Depression Among Those Who Were Mistreated as Children

A teddy bear lies alone in a room.

Experiencing abuse or neglect in childhood is associated with a range of physical and emotional problems in adulthood. However, some appear to have psychological resources that help avoid these problems. This MIDUS study looked at whether having a purpose in life helps those who suffered childhood maltreatment avoid later depression.

Having a sense of purpose involves having broader goals that give direction and meaning to one’s life. Sense of purpose was measured in this study by how much participants agreed with statements such as:

    • I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality.
    • Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
    • My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.

Participants reported experiences of emotional abuse or neglect in childhood, including how often their parents:

    • swore at or insulted them
    • sulked or refused to talk to them
    • smashed or kicked something in anger.

Participants also reported how much their parents understood them, cared for them, gave them love and attention, or put effort into watching over them.

Symptoms of depression were assessed by how often participants:

    • felt down on themselves, no good, worthless, or lost interest in most things (during the past 12 months)
    • felt nervous, hopeless, or so sad nothing could cheer them up (in the last 30 days).

Results showed that:

    • For those who had low levels of purpose in life, experiencing emotional abuse or neglect in childhood was associated with having more depressive symptoms in adulthood.
    • However, among those who had higher purpose in life, having difficult childhoods was not associated with later depression.

Why does having a purpose help people overcome the effects of childhood abuse or neglect? The authors speculate that having purpose can help survivors focus on the future instead of ruminating about difficulties experienced in the past. In addition, having a purpose may help people find or create meaning from past hardships that strengthen who one is in the present. Research is needed to see if interventions can support people in finding meaning and purpose in life challenges.

Source: Hartanto, A., Yong, J. C., Lee, S. T. H., Ng, W. Q., & Tong, E. M. W. (2020). Putting adversity in perspective: Purpose in life moderates the link between childhood emotional abuse and neglect and adulthood depressive symptoms. Journal of Mental Health, 29(4), 473-482. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638237.2020.1714005

Read the full article at: http://www.midus.wisc.edu/findings/pdfs/2083.pdf