Meaning in Life for Seniors

What’s so important about meaning in life?

How can you create it?

Meaning refers to the purpose and significance of one’s existence. It’s useful to distinguish between happiness and meaning in life. Happiness can make life enjoyable but may not make life meaningful. Ideally, we can find life to be both happy and meaningful. Meaning in life is a basic motivating force of human behavior. Alas, the rising incidence of depression and suicide in the US suggests that many Americans don’t fund life meaningful.

In her book, The Power of Meaning, Emily E. Smith identifies four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Belonging includes connecting and bonding with other people such that relationships reflect mutual care and feature frequent, pleasant interactions. Purpose reflects a stable, expansive personal goal that focuses on service to others and the world. Storytelling refers to the redemptive narrative that we use in the world to describe how we’ve overcome life’s challenges and grown in the process. Transcendence means a mental state in which the self disappears while we feel deeply connected to others and the world, perhaps with a sense of awe.

Those of us who have meaning in life likely enjoy better health and well-being and live longer than compared people who have little or no meaning in life. Michael Steger and colleagues used data from a public, authentic happiness web site developed by Martin Seligman and colleagues to evaluate meaning in life, search for meaning in life, and how both measures related to well-being over the life span.

The researchers found that meaning in life was correlated with well-being with medium to large effect sizes and was highest for the two oldest age groups (45-64, and 65 and older). Meaning in life was positively associated with happiness, positive mood, pleasure orientation, engagement orientation, and meaning orientation, and negatively associated with negative mood and depression. Across all age groups (from 18-25 to 65 and older), the effect size for meaning orientation always greater than other factors. The search for meaning was negatively correlated with life satisfaction, happiness and positive affect and positively correlated with depression.  Older people seem to be more able than younger people to make sense of their lives, given declining physical capability and changing life roles. Older people may actively seek more opportunities to engage in life than previously thought.

Does meaning in life predict longer life? Andrew Steptoe and colleagues analyzed data for 9,050 participants (average age 65 years) in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Eudaimonic well-being (aka sense of purpose and meaning in life) was assessed using items from a standard questionnaire covering autonomy, sense of control, purpose in life, and self-realization. As the degree of participants’ eudaimonic well-being increased from the lowest to the highest one-quarter, the risk of death during 8 years of follow-up declined from 29 to 9 percent. After controlling for confounding factors, multivariate analysis revealed a 30 percent drop in the risk of death for participants in the highest quartile of eudemonic well-being compared to the lowest. The graded nature of the observed decrease in mortality risk with increasing eudemonic well-being points toward a causal relationship.  British people who lived with purpose lived longer than those who didn’t live with purpose.

People with higher meaning in life tend to have better health, well-bring, and quality of life. Researchers in the Netherlands reviewed 44 studies to determine how older people find meaning in life, their sources of meaning, and circumstances that affect meaning. Older persons find meaning in old age by discovering and creating meaning, through connections to others and to something greater than self, and from daily activities. The main source of meaning in life for older persons arose from social relationships. Meaning in life primarily reflected connections to others and to self. Better health, living together, high socio-economic status, social relationships, daily activities, and religion all predicted greater meaning in life.

Interested in knowing the degree to which you have meaning in life? You can download the Meaning in Life Questionnaire. It evaluates the presence of meaning in life and search for meaning. The questionnaire contains 10 statements and takes 5 minutes to complete.

If you feel that your life doesn’t have enough meaning, what can do to change that? The four pillars of meaning identified by Emily Smith suggest four strategies. 1) Cultivate at least one person as a confidant with whom you can share your tender feelings. This will boost your sense of belonging. 2) Find ways to serve others, such as doing small, unsolicited favors for your friends and neighbors. Or start volunteering for your favorite non-profit organization. 3) Write a new life story that highlights how you managed to overcome adversities and how you’ve become a more optimistic, generous, and forgiving person as a result. 4) Spend time in nature to experience transcendence. This past March, my wife, Betsy, and I drove to the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, to witness the annual, northward migration of several hundred thousand lesser sandhill cranes. The sight of legions of cackling cranes landing in the shallow river after returning from a day of feeding on nearby corn fields brought us to tears.

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