The Monty Python crew went looking for the meaning of life in a 1983 film of the same name. Now research has found that meaning in life is pivotal to wellbeing and is age-related. The good news is that there’s a sweet spot when meaning in life peaks, the bad news is that it appears to be short-lived.
Meaning in life increases through our 40s and 50s and, for many, hits the heights at about 60, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of California have found that the presence of meaning in life – as opposed to the search for it – is vital for health and wellbeing.
“Many think about the meaning and purpose in life from a philosophical perspective, but meaning in life is associated with better health, wellness and perhaps longevity,” said senior author Dr Dilip Jeste. “Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it.”
The study, publishing this month in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found that the presence of meaning in life was associated with better physical and mental wellbeing. Conversely, they linked the search for meaning in life with worse mental wellbeing and cognitive functioning.
“When you find more meaning in life, you become more contented, whereas if you don’t have purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out,” said Dr Jeste.
“When you are young, like in your 20s, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life.
“As you enter your 30s, 40s and 50s, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family and you’re settled in a career. The search decreases and the meaning in life increases.
“After 60, things begin to change. People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away. They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.”
The three-year, cross-sectional study examined data from 1042 adults aged 21 to 100-plus, who were part of the Successful Aging Evaluation (SAGE) – a multi-cohort study of senior residents. The presence and search for meaning in life were assessed during interviews and a questionnaire in which participants were asked to rate such items as, “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” and “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.”
Dr Awais Aftab, first author of the paper and a former fellow in the department of Psychiatry at the University of California, said the medical field was starting to recognise that meaning in life was a clinically relevant factor in assessing the wellbeing and functioning of patients.
“We anticipate that our findings will serve as building blocks for the development of new interventions for patients searching for purpose,” he said.
Dr Jeste said further research would look at other areas, such as wisdom, loneliness and compassion, and their effect on wellbeing.
“We also want to examine if some biomarkers of stress and ageing are associated with searching and finding the meaning in life,” he said. “It’s an exciting time in this field as we are seeking to discover evidence-based answers to some of life’s most profound questions.”
Earlier this year, a study of almost 7000 middle-aged Americans found that those without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die during a five-year period – mostly from cardiovascular diseases – compared with those who had a purpose.
The findings were consistent despite levels of wealth or poverty and regardless of sex, race or education level.
Do you have a strong sense of meaning in life? Do you believe it is important to your wellbeing?
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