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New study pinpoints the age when life has the most meaning

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Searching for the meaning of life? Contentment? Happiness? According to a new study, the journey to enlightenment and satisfaction may last longer than you expect.

A study reported in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that adults often seem to find a sweet spot in life during a period of time after age 60 when many experience an intersection of mental and physical well-being with a sense of peace in terms of finding meaning in one’s life.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine examined data from 1042 people, ages 21 to over 100 years old, who took part in a Successful Aging Evaluation (SAGE). They came to the conclusion “that the presence of and search for meaning in life are important for health and well-being, though the relationships differ in adults younger and older than age 60.”

“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 Dilip V. Jeste, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UCSD. “Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it,” he said in a statement issued after the study was published online Dec. 10.

“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.

Researchers pointed to age 60 when the presence of meaning in life peaks and a taxing, lifelong search for meaning in life is at its lowest point.

“When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person,” Jeste commented. “You are searching for meaning in life. 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 bad news is that the happy zone doesn’t last very long.

“After age 60, things begin to change,” said Jeste. “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.”

Authors of the study expect their work to provide a foundation for “building blocks” toward helping “patients searching for purpose.”

“The medical field is beginning to recognize that meaning in life is a clinically relevant and potentially modifiable factor, which can be targeted to enhance the well-being and functioning of patients,” said Awais Aftab, a former fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSD. “We anticipate that our findings will serve as building blocks for the development of new interventions for patients searching for purpose.”

Going forward, there are other aspects to study in this area of research. Jeste mentioned that he expects such things as wisdom, loneliness, and compassion to be looked at in terms of how they impact 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,” he stated. “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.”

Victor Rantala

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