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Given the burden of depression in young adulthood, identifying protective early life factors is important. Protective factors like positive psychological well-being may be challenging to assess via conventional methods if early adolescents lack personal insight or informants disagree. We investigated whether essays written by 11-year-olds could indicate the presence of positive psychological well-being and predict depressive symptom levels in young adulthood, beyond informant reports of problematic behaviors.


Data were from 4,599 individuals in the 1958 National Child Development Study who wrote an essay at age 11 about how they imagined their life at age 25. Coders rated essays for seven facets of positive psychological well-being, which were averaged together (α = 0.92). Participants self-reported depressive symptoms (yes/no) at age 23 on the 24-item Malaise Inventory. Depressive symptoms were modeled as a sum, both continuously (range = 0–24) and dichotomously (depressed: total scores ≥8). Linear and logistic regressions adjusted for relevant age 11 covariates including teacher-reported internalizing and externalizing behaviors.


Unadjusted logistic regression showed a 1-SD higher positive psychological well-being score in early adolescence was associated with reduced odds of being depressed 12 years later (odds ratio = 0.83, 95% confidence interval [0.75, 0.93], p = .001). Associations remained when adjusting for all covariates (odds ratio = 0.87, 95% confidence interval [0.78, 0.98], p = .02); patterns were similar with continuous depressive symptoms.


A well-being measure derived from the words of 11-year-olds was associated with young adult depressive symptoms independent of teacher-reported internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Incorporating early adolescents' perspectives on positive functioning provides valuable information about current and future health beyond problem behaviors.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of Adolescent Health. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Journal of Adolescent Health, volume 74, issue 4, in 2024.

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Available for download on Tuesday, December 31, 2024