Fantasy proneness linked to greater sense of meaning in depressed individuals

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New research has found that fantasy proneness, or the tendency to engage in vivid mental worlds, is positively associated with a sense of meaning in life for individuals experiencing depression. The findings, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, suggest that people with depression may find meaning in life through engaging in mental fantasies.

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

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

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

“Depressed people typically struggle to find meaning in their lives, and recently I’ve been interested in how this might lead them to search for meaning in unusual ways. In this project, myself and my co-author were specifically interested in how the engagement in mental fantasy worlds might feel meaningful for people with depression.”

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

The second study was longitudinal and involved 278 undergraduate students from 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 linked to greater meaning in life for individuals with higher levels of depression. Specifically, in the first study, participants with high levels of depression who engaged in mental fantasy reported a greater sense of meaning in life compared to those with lower levels of depression. No significant relationship was found between fantasy proneness and meaning in life for individuals with low levels of depression.

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

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

While these results are intriguing, the study has some limitations to consider. The research is correlational, and it remains unclear whether engaging in fantasy directly leads to increased meaning in life or if individuals with more meaning in life are more likely to engage in fantasy.

“This research is preliminary, so we can’t be entirely confident about the findings until they are replicated by other researchers and in other contexts,” Maffly-Kipp noted. “Our findings were also all correlational, so any conclusions that involve causation are speculative. Though this topic seems challenging to explore in a causal way, future researchers that attempted to do so could draw more confident conclusions.”

In addition, 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 individuals to retreat further from reality, rather than addressing their real-world challenges.

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

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

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