How to Find Meaning and Connection in Later Life

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Many people struggle with finding a sense of purpose and belonging as they age, especially in the face of social isolation and loneliness. However, not all older adults experience these challenges in the same way.

Some may have a strong sense of purpose that helps them cope with the loss of social ties, while others may rely more on their existing relationships to maintain their well-being. How do these different factors interact and influence each other across the adult lifespan? And what can we learn from them to improve our own quality of life as we grow older?

In this article, I will review a recent study by Hill, Olaru, and Allemand (2023) that explored these questions using data from a large sample of Swiss adults aged 18 to 87. The study examined how sense of purpose, social support, and loneliness were related to each other and to psychological well-being at different stages of adulthood.

The study also tested whether sense of purpose moderated the effects of social support and loneliness on well-being, meaning that it could buffer or enhance the impact of these factors depending on their level.

The main findings of the study were as follows:

  • Sense of purpose, social support, and loneliness were all positively associated with well-being across the adult lifespan, but their relative importance varied by age group. Specifically, sense of purpose was more strongly related to well-being in younger and older adults than in middle-aged adults, while social support was more strongly related to well-being in middle-aged and older adults than in younger adults. Loneliness was negatively related to well-being in all age groups, but more so in older adults than in younger and middle-aged adults.
  • Sense of purpose moderated the effects of social support and loneliness on well-being, but only in older adults. In other words, having a high sense of purpose reduced the negative impact of low social support and high loneliness on well-being for older adults, but not for younger or middle-aged adults. Conversely, having a low sense of purpose amplified the negative impact of low social support and high loneliness on well-being for older adults, but not for younger or middle-aged adults.
  • The authors suggested that these results could be explained by the life span theory of control (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995), which proposes that people adapt their goals and strategies to match their changing resources and opportunities as they age. According to this theory, younger adults tend to focus on expanding their horizons and achieving their aspirations, which may require a strong sense of purpose to guide their actions and motivate them. Middle-aged adults tend to focus on maintaining their status quo and fulfilling their obligations, which may require a high level of social support to cope with the demands and stressors they face. Older adults tend to focus on preserving their autonomy and dignity, which may require both a high sense of purpose to sustain their identity and meaning, and a high level of social support to compensate for the losses and limitations they experience.

The implications of this study are twofold. First, it suggests that sense of purpose, social support, and loneliness are important factors for well-being throughout adulthood, but their relative weight may change depending on our age and life circumstances. Therefore, we should pay attention to how these factors affect us at different stages of our lives, and seek to enhance or balance them accordingly. Second, it suggests that sense of purpose can play a protective role for older adults who face low social support or high loneliness, by helping them maintain a positive outlook and cope with adversity. Therefore, we should cultivate our sense of purpose as we age, by engaging in activities that are meaningful and fulfilling to us, such as volunteering, learning new skills, or pursuing hobbies.

In conclusion, this study offers valuable insights into how we can find meaning and connection in later life, by showing how sense of purpose, social support, and loneliness interact and influence our well-being across the adult lifespan. By understanding these dynamics, we can better prepare ourselves for the challenges and opportunities that aging brings, and enhance our quality of life as we grow older.


reference link : https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fpag0000733

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