Fantasy proneness linked to greater sense of meaning in depressed individuals

New research has found that fantasy propensity, or the tendency to engage in vivid mental worlds, is positively associated with a sense of meaning in life for people experiencing depression. The findings, published in The journal of positive psychologysuggest that people with depression can find meaning in life through mental fantasies.

The need for a meaningful life is a well-established cornerstone of psychological well-being. People derive meaning from a variety of sources, such as social relationships, work, and positive experiences. Depression is characterized by a pervasive sense of hopelessness and a diminished ability to find joy in life, which can severely restrict the ability to derive meaning from habitual sources.

Given the fundamental role of meaning in psychological health, researchers sought to explore alternative ways in which people with depression could create a sense of meaning. They theorized that engaging in mental fantasies, often dismissed as escapism, could serve as a compensatory mechanism for those whose habitual pathways to meaning are blocked by depression.

“I’m interested in the ways in which people come to see their lives as meaningful and how this relates to psychological disorders such as depression,” said study author Joseph Maffly-Kipp, a postdoctoral fellow at the State University Medical Center. Ohio.

“Depressed people typically struggle to find meaning in their lives and I have recently become interested in how this might lead them to search for meaning in unusual ways. “In this project, my co-author and I were specifically interested in how engaging in mental fantasy worlds might be meaningful for people with depression.”

To examine this, the researchers conducted two studies. The first study was cross-sectional and involved 386 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 72 years, with diverse racial and gender backgrounds. They completed validated questionnaires measuring depression, fantasy proneness, and meaning in life. The depression scale used was the PHQ-2, while the propensity for fantasy was assessed with the Creative Experiences Questionnaire. Meaning in life was measured using the Meaning of Life Questionnaire.

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The second study was longitudinal and involved 278 undergraduate students at Texas A&M University. Participants completed a baseline survey similar to the first study and then weekly surveys for six consecutive weeks. This design allowed the researchers to track changes over time and examine both trait and state levels of depression and meaning in life.

In both studies, the results supported the hypothesis that fantasy proneness is related to greater meaning in life for people with higher levels of depression. Specifically, in the first study, participants with high levels of depression who engaged in mental fantasies reported greater meaning in life compared to those with lower levels of depression. No significant relationship was found between fantasy propensity and meaning in life in people with low levels of depression.

The second study replicated these findings. At baseline, the interaction between depression and fantasy proneness predicted meaning in life, mirroring the results of the first study. Longitudinal analysis showed that the relationship between fantasy proneness and weekly meaning in life was significant for people with higher initial levels of depression, but not for those with lower levels.

“We found in several studies that the tendency to engage in vivid mental fantasies was related to a greater perception that life had meaning, but this was only true for people with high levels of depression,” Maffly-Kipp told PsyPost. “We speculate that because depressed people struggle to find meaning in more typical ways (e.g., religion, social relationships, careers, community, etc.), they might resort to finding meaning through engagement in fantasies. Fantasies are less limited by reality, more controllable, and may be free of the negativity biases seen in depression. “They could help a person find a sense of belonging and purpose, even if it is imaginary.”

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While these results are intriguing, the study has some limitations to consider. The research is correlational and it is not yet clear whether engaging in fantasy directly leads to greater meaning in life or whether individuals with more meaning in life are more likely to engage in fantasy.

“This research is preliminary, so we can’t be completely sure of the findings until they are replicated by other researchers and in other contexts,” Maffly-Kipp said. “Our findings were also correlational, so any conclusions involving causality are speculative. Although this topic seems difficult to explore causally, future researchers who attempted to do so could draw more confident conclusions.”

Additionally, it is important to note that while fantasy provides temporary relief and a sense of meaning, it may not be a sustainable long-term solution. Engaging in fantasy could potentially reinforce depressive symptoms by allowing people to distance themselves further from reality, rather than addressing real-world challenges.

“Another reason this idea could be important for understanding depression is that it could help explain the development or maintenance of depression,” Maffly-Kipp explained. “For example, although engaging in fantasies may be meaningful for depressed people in the moment, it may also prevent them from interacting with the world and practicing self-care in ways that benefit their overall mental health. To the extent that we can connect this specific finding to broader motivational processes in depression, we could improve our understanding of the course of depression itself.”

The study, “Meaning through fantasy? Fantasy propensity positively predicts meaning for people high in depression.”, was published by Joseph Maffly-Kipp and Matthew Vess.

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