What is the meaning of life? But if you’re still searching, take solace in the fact that scientists may have finally found the age when purpose becomes clear. Knowing the answer could be a boon to your physical and mental health — humans tend to thrive with a sense of purpose, their results suggest.
Interviews with 1,042 people aged 21 to more than 100 years old reveal that people tend to feel like their lives have meaning at around age 60. That’s the age at which the search for meaning is often at it’s lowest, and the “presence” of meaning is at it’s highest, according to a new paper published this week in the journal Clinical Psychiatry.
If you’re a twenty-something ruminating about your life’s purpose, that may seem like a long time to wait. But take heart: If this study tells us anything, it’s that the ennui-fueled search for meaning in your early life is normal, and, even after 60, it doesn’t actually ever end. Instead, people may readjust how they derive purpose as they age.
When do we find meaning in life?
Everyone’s search for meaning is different, but those who find it say it boils down to a few things, says the study’s first author Awais Aftab, a fellow at University California, San Diego.
“Existing research points to a vital role played by factors such as a coherent sense of one’s identity, authentic relationships with friends and family members, engagement in long-term goals which provide a sense of accomplishment and contribute to the society, and acting with genuine altruism for the betterment of the world,” Aftab tells Inverse.
Participants were broken down into two groups of “younger adults,” with an an average age of 42, and older adults, with an average age of 80.
"After age 60, these trends begin to reverse."
People in their twenties and thirties tend to be searching for meaning, and have lower presence of meaning, according to the results. That’s intuitive, says Aftab. At these ages, people tend to go through various stages of psychological development, and actively seek friendships, careers, or relationships.
That search is normal, but it may also take a toll on health. Searching for meaning had a negative correlation with mental health, the results suggest.
The good news is that the answers do come, just later in life, according to this research. By ages 40 and 50, people tend to have established careers and relationships, Aftab says. As a result, “the active pursuit for meaning decreases and the perception that their life is meaningful increases,” he says.
Then comes 60, the crucial age. At this stage of life, the search tapers off, and the presence of meaning peaked. This was correlated with both improved mental health and improved physical health in the older adults.
But you’d better enjoy it while you can, the data suggest. After age 60, people begin to search for meaning in life all over again, Aftab says.
“With retirement, bereavement, and increasing health issues, the established sources of meaning in their lives begin to fade and people tend to start searching for other sources of meaning,” he says.
Health issues play a large role in this shift. Participants’ self-rated physical health and cognition declined with age — perhaps as a consequence, people felt that they needed to find new purpose as their bodies’ capabilities changed.
The resurgence in search for meaning among older adults suggests the meaning of life changes along with you. The same things that give you meaning at one stage in life may not always continue to do so.
How do people find meaning throughout their lives?
Psychiatrists need to consider how people identify purpose throughout their lives, the researchers say. It could help keep people healthy in both early life and late life, when the search for meaning tends to be most urgent.
Finding meaning in life has high payoff for physical and mental health, the results suggest. But finding that meaning doesn’t necessarily require a decades-long spirit quest.
Current group therapy methods that focus on “the power of narratives for making sense of our lives” or address feelings of existential angst could be effective, Aftab says. Cultivating authentic relationships and developing organic interests and hobbies may be beneficial, too.
“These findings generate further impetus for all of us to find activities and relationships that can provide us with a sense of meaning,” he says.
Methods: Cross-sectional data from 1,042 adults in the Successful AGing Evaluation (SAGE) – a multicohort study of adult community-dwelling residents of San Diego County, CA – were analyzed. Presence of meaning and Search for meaning in life were assessed with Meaning in Life Questionnaire. Physical and mental well-being were measured using the Short Form 36 Health Survey (SF-36). Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status - modified (TICS-m) was employed to screen for overall cognitive function. Study data were collected from January 2013 to June 2014.
Results: Presence of meaning exhibited an inverted U-shaped relationship whereas Search showed a U-shaped relationship with age (Presence peaking and Search reaching the lowest point around age 60). Statistical modelling using Generalized Estimating Equations revealed that Physical well-being (SF-36 physical composite score) correlated negatively with age (p <.001), and positively with Presence (p <.001), and there was an age group x Presence interaction (p = 0.018), such that the relationship was stronger in subjects over age 60. Mental well-being positively correlated with age (p = <.001) and Presence (p <.001), and negatively with Search (p = .002). Cognitive function correlated inversely with age (p <.001) and with Search (p <.001). Significant covariates of Presence and Search had small effect sizes, except for medium effect size for satisfaction with life and Presence in adults over age 60 (p <.001).
Conclusions: Presence and search for meaning in life are important for health and well-being, though the relationships differ in adults younger and older than 60 years. Better understanding of the longitudinal relationships of meaning of life with well-being are warranted to design interventions to increase meaning of life and improve health and functioning.