Life Histories and Mental Health

Carr, Deborah, Carol Ryff, Burton Singer, and William Magee
Working paper no. 1996-09


A life history approach to understanding four diverse mental health outcomes is presented. The central aim is to begin with richly detailed, “thick” descriptions of individuals’ lives and from them, to discern generalizable features to account for targeted outcomes. Conceptual principles guiding the organization and interpretation of life history information are summarized. Data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study are then used to illustrate the specific methodological steps for analyzing life histories of “resilient” women (those with prior history of depression who report high levels of current well-being). The steps begin with the writing of individual biographies, which are then reviewed for commonalities, and subsequently thinned to more generic descriptions. The process culminates with tests of distinguishability, contrasting the “resilient” from three other mental health groups. Our analysis documents multiple life pathways to resilience, and in so doing, underscores the constructive tension that exists between idiographic and nomothetic as well as inductive and deductive approaches.