Meaning as used here refers to thinking, caring and acting with purpose. Purpose refers to goals whereas meaning consists of the personal values underlying those purposes. Some interpret meaning and purpose as externally defined by an external philosophy, religion, or ideology, but the definitions used here view meaning and purpose as internal, personal attributes. The most central attitude and activity that produces greater meaning is that of caring. In particular, caring about and for others, when done without duress, frees us from meaninglessness more than any other human pastime.
People interacting together come up with shared values and beliefs that help each individual choose and pursue one or more purposes for living. These purposes make up that which we call “the meaning of life” or meaning for short.
In the past decade, considerable research, mostly by social psychologists, has helped unravel the importance of meaning for personal and social development. The research has also discovered a strong relationship of meaning with happiness. In general, greater meaning results from the following: acting with stronger purpose; concern for the common good; caring for family, friends, and strangers; coherence of purposes; and attention to ultimate concerns, such as where did we come from and where are we going.
The following assumptions follow from the research done on personal and social meaning:
(1) Purposes and actions have greater meaning if they include caring for others and our natural environment, without sacrificing essential care for ourselves.
(2) Meaning may be greater if one’s focus is upon spiritual concerns, but not necessarily religion.
(3) Meaning is greater when one’s purposes and actions have greater internal coherence or integration, which some call cognitive consistency.
(4) Meaning is greater when one’s purposes and actions yield greater impact or influence upon the greater good.
In short, meaning increases with each of these four elements, which serve as four separate dimensions. So, to maximize meaning, you would maximize all four dimensions. Thus, the greater each of the meaning components for any given person or society, the greater the overall meaning for that person or society.
Emily Esfahani Smith helped clarify questions of meaning. She observed “a growing new movement, one that is fundamentally reshaping our understanding of the good life.” Her research shows that the search for greater meaning is far more fulfilling than the pursuit of personal happiness.” Like so many who write on the topic of meaning in life, she strongly advocates doing things for others as the best route toward meaning and contentment with life. Her last chapter tackles the challenge of finding meaning in retirement. She notes that research finds that a sense of purpose declines with age and the transition to retirement. This emerging emptiness leads some in later life to seek radical changes like connecting with volunteer projects or seeking out new activities.
Meaning, Purpose & the Life Course
The role of meaning and purpose evolves over the life course. In childhood, the adults and older children in our lives, our parents especially, stand by ready to answer questions or give us advice and direction. Thus, their beliefs and values initially weigh more than our own. We look to others even for answers to questions like: What do I want to be when I grow up?
Upon reaching adulthood, we have much more freedom to choose our purposes and images of what we will become. But still we may ask: What do I want to do with my life? In midlife, we may have time to take stock and ask if our values and meaning in life are sufficient to give us the capacity to fulfill my self-defined purpose.
In later life as we make the transition to retirement or slowing down, we still have the challenge of deciding our direction, our goals and how we will continue to pursue our purpose while slowing down the pace of our lives.
Finally, as we confront our mortality. we need to accept death as a part of life. Unless we scale back our purpose and goals for living in accord with the demands of later life, we may not leave behind an inspiration to new generations to continue the purpose and meaning we have worked hard to define and pursue over our lifespan.
Meaning and Spirituality
As used here, the concept of spirituality means one’s deepest values, ultimate concerns and a sense of awe and reverence toward the universe. The practice of spirituality typically includes meditation sessions or prayer with contemplation of inner concerns and relationships with others. Sometimes these experiences are called self-transcendence and inner growth. Spirituality can occur with or without religious beliefs and rituals.
Gerontologist Robert Atchley promotes the idea that “among elders, service to others can be a spiritual experience.” His premise is based upon the reality that service stems from the impulse to care. The key is to be spiritually grounded while serving others and to avoid the trap of self-centeredness.
Mindfulness is a practice of being fully in the here and now. Such intense awareness of the present moment aids the preparation to serve others. Basically, the practice of mindfulness involves meditation where the focus of one’s attention resides on one’s breathing, a visible object, or anything except what randomly pops into your mind. More advanced forms of this type of meditation use slogans to focus your thinking and feeling upon desired traits like compassion, kindness, and so forth. Some view aging as a spiritual path because the difficult later-life challenges of loss, meaning and mortality engage transcendence, inner contemplation, and other spiritual processes.
Meaning and Happiness
Meaningfulness is an essential ingredient of well-being and deep happiness. Thus, the recent research findings that happiness and meaning produce different behaviors appear counter-intuitive. Research by Smith found that greater meaning in life but not happiness is correlated with helping others. The same is true of giving, deep thinking, and being wise or creative. Thus, these factors may ultimately lead to greater happiness but only because they increase the meaningfulness of one’s life. So, if you had to choose between happiness and meaning, the research shows that meaning pays off more. This, is probably even more true for the older and oldest adults because if they had not learned to be happy at younger age levels, happiness may be elusive. The major exception is if elderly people concentrate upon building greater meaning and meaningfulness.
Some theories of aging suggest that happiness and subjective well-being tend to improve as workers move into retirement status. For many, this rise may be due to thinking of retirement as a liberation from tedious work. Support for this comes from two very large national surveys in the USA. These studies found that retirees, compared to workers, experienced less anxiety and distress and higher happiness or well-being, which supports the perspective that retirement tends to be liberating compared to work. Retirees had a lower sense of control over their lives than did workers. Further research of this nature might uncover more about meaning in retirement.
Among English speakers, the words “meaning,” “purpose” and “spirituality” lack clarity and consensus. This essay has defined these concepts in simple language and revealed how important purpose and meaning are to a successful life. Spirituality is important too, but the concept and the impact of spirituality on purpose and meaning are so complex that they are not addressed here. The role of purpose and meaning in later life, including retirement, are very important in determining a “successful” or peaceful and stress-free end of life. Maintaining humanitarian and caring values and actions is very important to a successful and gratifying life.