Skip to main content

Happiness, Meaning in Life, and PTSD Symptoms Among National Guard Personnel: A Multilevel Analysis

Abstract

Protective factors associated with reductions in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have received much less empirical attention than risk factors for PTSD. Happiness and meaning in life are two protective factors that are inversely correlated with PTSD symptom severity, but research to date has primarily considered associations at the participant level, ignoring group-level effects. As a result, little is known about how various characteristics of military units may impact military personnel exposed to traumatic and/or stressful life experiences. In a sample of 997 National Guard personnel assigned to 40 units, we examined associations among happiness, meaning in life, and PTSD symptoms at both the participant and unit level using multilevel modeling. Higher levels of happiness at both the participant and unit level significantly moderated the effect of lifetime trauma exposure with PTSD symptom severity. Meaning in life at both the participant and the unit levels were inversely correlated with PTSD symptom severity. Results suggest that service members tend to report less severe PTSD symptoms if they experience positive emotions more frequently, have a stronger sense of purpose, and are assigned to units with higher levels of happiness and meaning in life. This protective effect may be due to the “transfer” of positive cognitive–affective states from one unit member to another.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

References

  1. Anestis, M. D., & Green, B. A. (2015). The impact of varying levels of confidentiality on disclosure of suicidal thoughts in a sample of United States National Guard personnel. Journal of Clinical Psychology,71, 1023–1030.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Armistead-Jehle, P., Johnston, S. L., Wade, N. G., & Ecklund, C. J. (2011). Posttraumatic stress in U.S. marines: The role of unit cohesion and combat exposure. Journal of Counseling and Development,89, 81–88.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Baumeister, R. D., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Garbinsky, E. N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology,8, 505–516.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Blackburn, L., & Owens, G. P. (2015). The effect of self efficacy and meaning in life on posttraumatic stress disorder and depression severity among veterans. Journal of Clinical Psychology,71, 219–228.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Blevins, C. A., Weathers, F. W., Davis, M. T., Witte, T. K., & Domino, J. L. (2015). The posttraumatic stress disorder checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5): Development and initial psychometric evaluation. Journal of Traumatic Stress,28, 489–498.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Blosnich, J. R., Dichter, M. E., Cerulli, C., Batten, S. V., & Bossarte, R. M. (2014). Disparities in adverse childhood experiences among individual swith a history of military service. JAMA Psychiatry,71, 1041–2048.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Blumberg, S. H., & Izard, C. E. (1985). Affective and cognitive characteristics of depression in 10- and 11-year-old children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,49, 194–202.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Blumberg, S. H., & Izard, C. E. (1986). Discriminating patterns of emotions in 10- and 11-year-old children’s anxiety and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,51, 852–857.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Brailey, K., Vasterling, J. J., Proctor, S. P., Constans, J. I., & Friedman, M. J. (2007). PTSD symptoms, life events, and unit cohesion in U.S. soldiers: Baseline findings from the Neurocognition Deployment Health Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress,20, 495–503.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Britt, T. W., Adler, A. B., Bliese, P. D., & Moore, D. (2013). Morale as a moderator of the combat exposure-PTSD symptom relationship. Journal of Traumatic Stress,26, 94–101.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Bryan, C. J., Bryan, A. O., Roberge, E., Leifker, F. R., & Rozek, D. C. (2018). Moral injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behavior among National Guard personnel. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy,10, 36–45.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Bryan, C. J., Elder, W. B., McNaughton-Cassill, M., Osman, A., Hernandez, A. M., & Allison, S. (2013). Meaning in life, emotional distress, suicidal ideation, and life functioning in an active duty military sample. Journal of Positive Psychology,8, 444–452.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Bryan, C. J., Ray-Sannerud, B., & Heron, E. A. (2015). Psychological flexibility as a dimension of resilience for posttraumatic stress, depression, and risk for suicidal ideation among Air Force personnel. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science,4, 263–268.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Chamberlain, K., & Zika, S. (1988). Measuring meaning in life: An examination of three scales. Personality and Individual Differences,9, 589–596.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Chan, D. W. (2010). Gratitude, gratitude intervention and subjective well-being among Chinese school teachers in Hong Kong. Educational Psychology,30, 139–153.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Cheng, S. T., Tsui, P. K., & Lam, J. H. (2015). Improving mental health in health care practitioners: Randomized controlled trial of a gratitude intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,83, 177–186.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Clancy, C. P., Graybeal, A., Tompson, W. P., Badgett, K. S., Feldman, M. E., Calhoun, P. S., et al. (2006). Lifetime trauma exposure in veterans with military-related posttraumatic stress disorder: Association with current symptomatology. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry,67, 1346–1353.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Cohn, M. A., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positive emotions. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 13–24). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., & Malott, J. (2015). Moral injury, meaning making, and mental health in returning veterans. Journal of Clinical Psychology,71, 229–240.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Dickstein, B. D., McLean, C. P., Mintz, J., Conoscenti, L. M., Steenkamp, M. M., Benson, T. A., et al. (2010). Unit cohesion and PTSD symptom severity in air force medical personnel. Military Medicine,175, 482–486.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Diener, E., Scollon, C. N., & Lucas, R. E. (2009). The evolving concept of subjective well-being: The multifaceted nature of happiness. In E. Diener (Ed.), Assessing well-being: the collected works of Ed Diener (pp. 67–200). New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Du Preez, J., Sundin, J., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. T. (2012). Unit cohesion and mental health in the UK armed forces. Occupational Medicine,62, 47–53.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,84, 377–389.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Enders, C. K., & Tofighi, D. (2007). Centering predictor variables in cross-sectional multilevel models: A new look at an old issue. Psychological Methods,12, 121–138.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Fear, N., Wessely, S., Dopko, R., Jones, N., McAllister, P., & Wessely, S. (2012). Leadership, cohesion, morale, and the mental health of UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan. Psychiatry-Interpersonal and Biological Processes,75, 49–59.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Foa, E. B., Steketee, G., & Rothbaum, B. O. (1989). Behavioral/cognitive conceptualizations of post-traumatic stress disorder. Behavior Therapy,20, 155–176.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal,337, 1–9.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist,56, 218–226.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In P. Devine & A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1–53). Burlington: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. E. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science,13, 172–175.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United State on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,84, 365–376.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Grossman, M., Van Neste Kenny, J., Lee, V., Chambers-Evans, J., Godin, M., & McHarg, L. (1999). Emotional distress in critically-injured patients three months after a potentially life-threatening accident. Journal of Neuroscience Nursing,31, 159–173.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Hirsch, J. K., Nsamenang, S. A., Chang, E. C., & Kaslow, N. J. (2014). Spiritual well-being and depressive symptoms in female African American suicide attempters: Mediating effects of optimism and pessimism. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,6, 276–283.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Izard, C. E., Libero, D. Z., Putnam, P., & Haynes, O. M. (1993). Stability of emotion experiences and their relations to traits of personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,64, 847–860.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Jones, N., Seddon, R., Fear, N. T., McAllister, P., Wessely, S., & Greenberg, N. (2012). Leadership, cohesion, morale, and the mental health of UK armed forces in Afghanistan. Psychiatry,75, 49–59.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Jordan, B. K., Marmar, C. R., Fairbank, J. A., Schlenger, W. E., Kulka, R. A., Hough, R. L., et al. (1992). Problems in families of male Vietnam veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,60, 916–926.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Kashdan, T. B., Biswas-Diener, R., & King, L. A. (2008). Reconsidering happiness: The costs of distinguishing between hedonics and eudaimonia. The Journal of Positive Psychology,3, 219–233.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Kashdan, T. B., Julian, T., Merritt, K., & Uswatte, G. (2006a). Social anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder in combat veterans: Relations to well-being and character strengths. Behaviour Research and Therapy,44, 561–583.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Kashdan, T. B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006b). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy,44, 177–199.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Kessler, R. C., Heeringa, S. G., Stein, M. B., Colpe, L. J., Fullerton, C. S., Hwang, I., et al. (2014). Thirty-day prevalence of DSM-IV mental disorders among nondeployed soldiers in the US Army: Results from the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members (Army STARRS). JAMA Psychiatry,71, 504–513.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Kessler, R. C., Petukhova, M., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Wittchen, H. (2012). Twelve-month and lifetime prevalence and lifetime morbid risk of anxiety and mood disorders in the United States. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research,21, 169–184.

    Google Scholar 

  42. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2012). Positive affect and meaning in life: The intersection of hedonism and eudamonia. In P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (pp. 135–141). New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

    Google Scholar 

  43. King, L. A., Hicks, J. A., Krull, J. L., & Del Gaiso, A. K. (2006). Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,90, 179–196.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Koenen, K. C., Stellman, S. D., Sommer, J. F., Jr., & Stellman, J. M. (2008). Persisting posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and their relationship to functioning in Vietnam veterans: A 14-year follow-up. Journal of Traumatic Stress,21, 49–57.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Kok, B. C., Herrell, R. K., Thomas, J. L., & Hoge, C. W. (2012). Posttraumatic stress disorder associated with combat service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease,200, 444–450.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Mancini, A. D., & Bonanno, G. A. (2010). Resilience to potential trauma: Towards a lifespan approach. In J. W. Reich, A. Zautra, & J. S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of adult resilience (pp. 258–280). New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Moskowitz, J. T., Folkman, S., & Acree, M. (2003). Do positive psychological states shed light on recovery from bereavement? Findings from a 3-year longitudinal study. Death Studies,27, 471–500.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (2018). The scientific pursuit of happiness. Perspectives on Psychological Science,13, 218–225.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Nezu, A. M., & Carnevale, G. J. (1987). Interpersonal problem solving and coping reactions of Vietnam veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology,96, 155–157.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Owens, G. P., Steger, M. F., Whitesell, A. A., & Herrera, C. J. (2009). Posttraumatic stress disorder, guilt, depression, and meaning in life among military veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress,22, 654–657.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Pietrzak, R. H., Goldstein, R. B., Southwick, S. M., & Grant, B. F. (2011). Prevalence and Axis I comorbidity of full and partial posttraumatic stress disorder in the United States: Results from Wave 2 of the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. Journal of Anxiety Disorders,25, 456–465.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Pietrzak, R. H., Johnson, D. C., Goldstein, M. B., Malley, J. C., River, A. J., Morgan, C. A., et al. (2010). Psychosocial buffers of traumatic stress, depressive symptoms, and psychosocial difficulties in veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom: The role of resilience, unit support, and postdeployment social support. Journal of Affective Disorders,120, 188–192.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Redwine, L., Henry, B. L., Pung, M. A., Wilson, K., Chinh, K., Knight, B., et al. (2016). A pilot randomized study of a gratitude journaling intervention on HRV and inflammatory biomarkers in Stage B heart failure patients. Psychosomatic Medicine,78, 667–676.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Reich, C. M., Blackwell, N., Simmons, C. A., & Beck, J. G. (2015). Social problem solving strategies and posttraumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of intimate partner violence. Journal of Anxiety Disorders,32, 31–37.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. P. (1988). Aging as an individual process: Toward a theory of personal meaning. In J. E. Birren & V. L. Bengtson (Eds.), Emergent theories of aging (pp. 214–246). New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Resick, P. A., Monson, C. M., & Chard, K. M. (2016). Cognitive processing therapy for PTSD: A comprehensive manual. New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Sheldon, K. M., Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (2011). Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in life. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 679–687). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Steger, M. F., Bundick, M. J., & Yeager, D. (2012). Meaning in life. In R. J. R. Levesque (Ed.), Encyclopedia of adolescence (pp. 1666–1677). Berlin: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology,53, 80–93.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Steger, M. F., & Kashdan, T. B. (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. Motivation and Emotion,31, 159–173.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Steger, M. F., Kashdan, T. B., Sullivan, B. A., & Lorentz, D. (2008). Understanding the search for meaning in life: Personality, cognitive style, and the dynamic between seeking and experiencing meaning. Journal of Personality,76, 199–228.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kasdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology,4, 43–52.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Stein, N., Folkman, S., Trabasso, T., & Richards, T. A. (1997). Appraisal and goal processes as predictors of psychological well-being in bereaved caregivers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,72, 872–884.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Thomas, J. L., Wilk, J. E., Riviere, L. A., McGurk, D., Castro, C. A., & Hoge, C. W. (2010). Prevalence of mental health problems and functional impairment among active component and National Guard soldiers 3 and 12 months following combat in Iraq. Archive of General Psychiatry,67, 614–623.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Tugade, M. M., Fredrickson, B. L., & Barrett, L. F. (2004). Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: Examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health. Journal of Personality,72, 1161–1190.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Watts, B. V., Schnurr, P. P., Mayo, L., Young-Xu, Y., Weeks, W. B., & Friedman, M. J. (2013). Meta-analysis of the efficacy of treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry,74, 541–550.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Weathers, F. W., Blake, D. D., Schnurr, P. P., Kaloupek, D. G., Marx, B. P., & Keane, T. M. (2013b). The life events checklist for DSM-5 (LEC-5). Instrument available from the National Center for PTSD at www.ptsd.va.gov.

  69. Weathers, F. W., Litz, B. T., Keane, T. M., Palmieri, P. A., Marx, B. P., & Schnurr, P. P. (2013a). The PTSD checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5). Scale available from the National Center for PTSD at www.ptsd.va.gov.

  70. Whitesell, A. A., & Owens, G. P. (2012). The impact of patriotism, morale, and unit cohesion on mental health in Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Traumatology,18, 1–7.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Wong, P. T. P. (2012). The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Zhang, H., Pittman, D. M., Lamis, D. A., Fischer, N. L., Schwenke, T. J., Carr, E. R., et al. (2015). Childhood maltreatment and PTSD: Spiritual well-being and intimate partner violence as mediators. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma,24, 501–519.

    Google Scholar 

  73. Zika, S., & Chamberlain, K. (1992). On the relation between meaning in life and psychological well-being. British Journal of Psychology,83, 133–145.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Craig Bryan has received research grants from the Department of Defense, National Institute of Mental Health, Bob Woodruff Foundation, and the Boeing Company; and has received consulting fees from Neurostat Analytical Solutions and Oui Therapeutics. AnnaBelle Bryan has received research grants from the Department of Defense and the Boeing Company. Feea Leifker has received research grants from the Department of Defense, Bob Woodruff Foundation, and the Boeing Company

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Craig J. Bryan.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

Kelsi Rugo and Kent Hinkson report no potential conflicts of interest.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bryan, C.J., Bryan, A., Rugo, K. et al. Happiness, Meaning in Life, and PTSD Symptoms Among National Guard Personnel: A Multilevel Analysis. J Happiness Stud 21, 1251–1264 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00129-3

Download citation

Keywords

  • PTSD
  • Military
  • Happiness
  • Meaning in life
  • Protective factors