“It has been said, ‘Time heals all wounds’. I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone”
-Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy
Self-reported measures of subjective well-being or life satisfaction have been used as a valid and reliable indicators of well-being based on extensive research in the last decades. Prior psychology and economics studies have documented that a series of major negative life events, such as unemployment, involuntary retirement, divorce, widowhood, disability, and natural disasters, have strong effects one one’s current level of well-being. Evidence from medicine and psychology studies has also indicated that past exposure to traumatic events is linked to one’s dispositions and well being in life.
The survey collected information on a large sample of the US population aged over 50 as it conveys information on current levels of subjective well-being or life satisfaction and extremely adverse events that occurred in the past, including information on timing of the events that occurred during their childhood or adolescence. Hypotheses for this study are:
- There is a negative correlation between general life satisfaction and the occurrence of a traumatic event.
- The correlation falls as the traumatic event is farther in time.
- There is a negative correlation between domain-specific measures of life satisfaction and the occurrence of a traumatic event.
- There are gender differences, with women being more affected than men by traumatic events involving a close relative (child or partner), rather than themselves.
In this study, data from the Health and Retirement Study (hereinafter HRS) is a large-scale longitudinal survey of a representative sample of the US population 50 to 80 years old. This analysis is based on four waves, from 2006 to 2012. We constructed the final dataset of 13,006 observations on 6,503 individuals. For each individual, two statements will be made, one four years after the other (in 2006 and 2010 or 2008 and 2012). Furthermore, from each individual, there are two observations on most of the variables listed in Table 1, which can group into five broad categories: (a) life satisfaction, (b) traumatic events, (c) personality, (d) health, and (e) socio-demographic. The exact wording of the variables belonging to groups (a)–(d) is reported in the Supplementary Information. For comparability, all variables in categories (b)–(d) take values in the range 0–1.
Variable independent is life satisfaction, which is assessed through an aggregate indicator of general life satisfaction (in benchmark analysis) as well as through domain-specific measures (on six different domains such as satisfaction with home, leisure, family life, cities, finances, and health). Then, for dependent variable use Likert scale from 1 to 5, higher scores indicate higher life satisfaction, where referring to (Rojas, 2006) by using subjective well-being as a measure of life satisfaction.
In the questionnaire,a traumatic event group was also measured by the Linkert scale with reference to (Rojas, 2006), consisting of the death of a child, serious physical injury (assault or assault, and a life-threatening illness or accident involving the respondent or spouse/child) and one event that occurred in the distant past, i.e., before the age of 18 (physical abuse by one of the parents). There are distinguishes dividing traumatic events into three spans of years, namely within 10 years, between 11 and 30 years, and more than 30 years.
Not only that, the HRS questionnaire can show 9 personal group indexes that are used to assess personality aspects, namely, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism (these five traits are included in the “Big Five” personality taxonomy). Furthermore, cynical hostility, anxiety, anger-in and anger-out.
If, from self-reported health status, plus three scores related to functional limitation, there is Mobility and Strength (MS), Activities of Daily Life (ADL), and Instrument Activity of Daily Life (IADL). All scores are measured in such a way that the higher the score, the less functional limitation. Finally, the study looks at a group of socio-demographic variables that include standard information about age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, marital status, employment status, head education, and household income and wealth.
Based on the hypotheses, the result of this study are:
- Life satisfaction and traumatic events
Life satisfaction is higher with women, immigrates, married individuals, high school and college graduates, as well as individuals living in richer households. Respondents with better general health, mobility, strength and activities of daily living have higher perception on life satisfaction. Traumatic events, especially physical attack/assault, physical abuse when younger than 18, and life threatening illness/accident of the partner/child exhibit significantly negative correlation with life satisfaction.
- Timing of the traumatic events
The correlation between life satisfaction and traumatic events decays over time for an illness or accident, while it remains persistent for a physical attack/assault and for being abused.
- Specific domains of life satisfaction
When life satisfaction is measured involving the financial situation and leisure activities, it is found that these domains are the only ones to be uncorrelated with traumatic events that occurred before age 18. The correlation between life satisfaction and traumatic events is depending on the domain under consideration.
- Gender dimension
Women’s life satisfaction is higher than men. General life satisfaction of men is virtually unrelated to the occurrence of traumatic events, with exception for physical attack or assault because these events cause significantly negative effects on life satisfaction for both genders. Women display more correlation than men on general life satisfaction, as well as on domains related to house and health conditions, and fewer correlations on the financial domain. The result suggests that women are more affected than men by traumatic events – especially when the events involved a close relative rather than them personally.
Based on all the analyses in this study, life satisfaction was generally lower after three traumatic events, such as a life-threatening illness or accident that occurred to a close relative (spouse or child), particularly after physical attacks on the respondents. Suppose we examine the specific domains that affect life satisfaction more strongly, namely physical attacks/attacks and illness/accidents in spouse/children before 18 years. It’s what continues to affect a person’s life satisfaction in living life. Therefore, this study found that individuals cannot fully recover from bad experiences in certain events, especially in a woman.
However, from these conclusions, there are also weaknesses in this study:
- There are limitations in the data used (based on the size assessed and with limited panel dimensions).
- Unlike some of the economic and psychological studies reviewed in the content section, the data set obtained restricts the researcher from drawing specific implications concerning the well-known problem of “hedonic adaptation” since the researcher lacks information about individual life satisfaction before the traumatic event.
- This study did not allow us to delve deeper into the specific characteristics of the psychological processes underlying the detected associations between significant life events and life satisfaction.
Thus, there is still a need to improve various data to produce more accurate research results regarding the effect of individual trauma on life satisfaction.
Bucciol, A., & Zarri, L. (2020). Wounds that time can’t heal: Life satisfaction and exposure to traumatic events. Journal of Economic Psychology, 76, 102241. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2019.102241