The little things count: Adding up strengths to fight adversity in midlife

Enduring a single traumatic event, such as losing a loved one or a spouse, can be especially hard and can negatively impact psychological well-being. Many studies have linked this traumatic loss to an increase in depression and risk of death from heart disease and suicide, as well as contributing to a variety of psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders. For example, over 25% of widows and widowers report experiencing clinical depression within the first year of spousal loss.

But what about the monthly stressors, like traffic, social isolation from COVID-19 or unexpected annoyances like bills or repairs?

Frank Infurna, associate professor of psychology at the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, wanted to find out the impact of these seemingly minor yet prolonged events. In a new paper published in Psychology and Aging, he explores the concept of accumulated adversity and its association with mental health, well-being and social connection in middle-aged people.

“We already know that singular events such as spousal loss or job loss impact mental health and well-being, but we wanted to look at whether adversity that transpires from month to month can lead to impacting our depressive symptoms, life satisfaction and social connection with others,” Infurna said.

Infurna is an expert on resilience and overcoming adversity, and conducts research on developmental processes in midlife or the age range between 40 to 65. He is the primary investigator of the Lifespan Development Lab in the ASU Department of Psychology, which examines resilience to major life stressors and psychosocial predictors of healthy aging in adulthood and old age. Infurna has also recently published on midlife experiences across the world, childhood loneliness and problem drinking later in life, and natural resilience to traumatic events. 

“I'm interested in exploring various topics of adversity and resilience but also historical changes in mental and physical health during this period in the life span,” he said.

Infurna analyzed data that was collected from a group of middle-aged adults aged between 50 and 65. These participants were assessed monthly for a period of two years on the basic events of their daily lives to measure accumulated adversity. Infurna wanted to examine if this aggregate of negative moments was predictive of depressive symptoms, measures of life satisfaction and positive character traits like gratitude or generativity. 

“Given the intensive nature of the data collection, we were able to look at more nuanced research questions when it comes to examining adversity,” Infurna said. “The most interesting thing was finding that accumulated adversity does meaningfully impact our depressive symptoms and life satisfaction, and various aspects of social connections, such as generativity.”

Infurna found that it was not just things that happened in one particular month, but when things pile up over the course of multiple months, it can meaningfully impact how we're doing in the current moment and in the future. 

“For this study, we just focused on negative life events, but for future research, we would like to further probe and look at positive events, because life is not just about the negative," he said. "There's so much good to look into in the world. And so in future studies, I think that would be great to explore further."

Video of The little things count: Adding up strengths to fight adversity in midlife

Video courtesy the ASU Department of Psychology

The authors of the study acknowledge the support provided by the John Templeton Foundation (Grant Number 60699).

Robert Ewing