Three studies examined the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and meaning in life, focusing on the facets of meaning—coherence, significance, and purpose.
In Study 1 (N = 1804), college students rated adverse childhood experiences, global meaning in life, and its facets. In Study 2 (N = 822), noncollege adults rated childhood trauma, meaning in life facets, attachment style, mood, and neuroticism. In Study 3 (N = 380) college students wrote about a positive and negative childhood memory, rating the facets of meaning immediately after each writing task.
In Studies 1–2, at the level of zero-order correlations, adverse childhood experiences related negatively to coherence, significance, and purpose. Controlling for the other facets, adverse childhood experiences remained negatively related to coherence and significance but were unrelated to purpose. Negative relationships between adverse childhood experiences and coherence and significance maintained controlling for covariates (Study 2). In Study 3, the predicted 3-way interaction showed that after recalling a negative childhood memory, adverse childhood experiences predicted lower significance and coherence but higher purpose.
Adverse childhood experiences consistently predict lower feelings of coherence and significance but, accounting for these associations, are unrelated to purpose. Purpose may represent a motivational strength emerging out of childhood adversity.