The concept of meaning as it pertains to human lives has been one of the cornerstones of philosophy for millennia. During the past three-or-so decades, however, it has also emerged as an important data point in medical research, especially when it comes to aging populations.
As it turns out, far from merely being a nebulous theoretical preoccupation, the sense of meaningfulness is also associated with better heath, overall mental and physical well-being, and potentially even longevity.
A new cross-sectional study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and published online in the 10 December 2019 edition of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, has found that the search for, and the presence of, meaning in life exhibit a U-shaped and an inverted U-shaped relationship with age, respectively.
Once people hit their thirties, forties and fifties – at which point they will often have the careers, relationships, and self-understanding they’ve been pursuing up until then – the sense of meaning reaches its peak. This, unfortunately, might not last for very long.
“After age 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,” explained senior author Professor Dilip V. Jeste.
The study was conducted on the basis of data collected from 1,042 residents of the San Diego County, ages 21 to 100-plus, who took part in the multi-cohort study called Successful Aging Evaluation, or SAGE. The status of the participants with regards to subjective meaning was determined via interviews and specialised questionnaires.
According to the authors, the medical field in only beginning to realise the potential real-world effects of having, or lacking, a defined purpose, which could eventually culminate in the development of new interventions aiming to improve people’s overall quality of life.
To keep this line of inquiry going, Jeste and his colleagues are gearing up to engage other psychological constructs, such as wisdom, loneliness and compassion, to clarify their relatedness to meaning in life.
“We also want to examine if some biomarkers of stress and aging are associated with searching and finding the meaning in life. 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,” Jeste said.