A new study claims that finding meaning in life peaks at age 60. Just as previous research has shown, this study also highlights that finding meaning can also earn you a whole trove of benefits from mental well-being to physical health.
Frustratingly, the researchers also found an inversely proportional relationship between the search for meaning and the actual presence of meaning. Basically, the periods of life when you’re looking for meaning, you’re less likely to find it.
In other words, it’s good to find meaning in life, but it’s bad to search for it.
“When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life,” senior author Dilip V Jeste, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said in a statement.
“As you start to get into your thirties, forties, and fifties, 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.”
The sweet spot appears to be at 60, but it doesn’t last long.
“After age 60, things begin to change,” Jeste explained. “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.”
Reporting in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the team studied data from 1,042 adults, aged 21 to over 100, over a period of three years. Through interviews and questionnaires, the participants were asked to rate certain statements, such as “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” and “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.” Paired with this, they also looked at the participants’ physical health and mental well-being,
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that the presence of meaning in life was associated with physical and mental well-being, while the search for meaning in life may be associated with worse mental well-being 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 Jeste.
There are, of course, a few caveats with the study. The participants self-reported and the definition of “meaning in life” is subjective.
Ask any spiritual or non-spiritual person or keyboard philosopher and they’ll tell you that “meaning” in life can mean something different. For this study, the idea of meaning was largely self-defined and self-reported, which could have swayed the results a little bit. Nevertheless, this study clearly highlights a common curiosity of humanity: meaning and purpose are things we constantly strive for and long to possess – just make sure you don’t waste your whole life trying to find it.