Fortune Well July 28, 2023
We treat old age like a medical condition and are consumed by the multiplying puzzles of treatment, logistics, and the price of care. Our successful puzzle-solving has led to longer lives. But too often, we gain time but lose track of meaning. My primary focus over the last few years has also been on the puzzles. But it’s in the mysteries of aging where transformation can happen for us, and where positive cultural shifts must draw their strength. Drained of meaning, late-life becomes largely a series of losses. If we can re-imbue aging with meaning, there’d be a lot less suffering. Here are some modes of meaning-making that are available to us in any season of life.
“The truth,” wrote Viktor Frankl about his realization in the concentration camp, is “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. . . . The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Decades of studies have looked at love from countless perspectives. The unambiguously clear conclusion is that human connection and love lengthen lives and improve both physical and mental health. If meaning is the question, love is the answer.
In the longest-running study of human development ever done, in a place utterly unlike a concentration camp, the answer was much the same: 268 men who graduated from Harvard University, between 1939 and 1944—including President John F. Kennedy and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee—had their health and well-being followed lifelong, many into their nineties. The findings were summed up this way: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” Over time, the study cohort was expanded to include “boys from disadvantaged and troubled” families in Boston and 1,300 descendants of the original group. In the 2023 update, researchers wrote that “good relationships lead to health and happiness.” But, they cautioned, “those relationships must be nurtured”; like physical fitness, social fitness takes work. They encourage taking stock of one’s relationships annually. Assess honestly “what you’re receiving, what you’re giving, and where you would like to be in another year,” they say. “Doing this can yield enormous benefits.”
But as aging narrows many people’s worlds, it’s not just love we need. We also need connections, like volunteering, book clubs, and senior centers. Researchers have found bountiful evidence for decades about all the ways social connection improves well-being in aging and forms a protective shield against bad things.
How we find purpose may evolve as we age, but it’s no less important. The way to avoid an old age that is “a derisory parody of our former existence,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, in her doleful
book, The Coming of Age, “is to go on pursuing ends that give our life a meaning—devotion to individuals, to collectives, to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work.” Like others, de Beauvoir notes that valuing the lives of others, whether by love, friendship, indignation, or compassion, also gives meaning to our own lives.
But the way we’ve cordoned off older people can make this harder than it should be, squandering our collective humanity. Old and young have much to give one another that is available nowhere else. When we weave back together generations that have been torn apart, the benefits flow both ways. And those benefits aren’t just measured in better reading skills and happy hugs. Steve Cole’s research suggests that older people who volunteered with at-risk kids also had lower levels of inflammation and better health long term.
What we know about the measurable benefits of purpose keeps expanding. It lowers risks of stroke, heart disease, and dementia; it improves the quality of life, sleep, heart health, walking speed, and grip strength; and it lengthens both life span and health span.
When I was a little girl, I would lie awake at night, terrified by the notion that time and space went on forever. Infinity was my bogeyman. I’d try to avert my mind, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the great, unending darkness. Then somewhere along the way, fear became awe. In the middle of clear, dark nights in northern Wisconsin, my siblings and I would paddle boats out into the lake and drift under the falling stars, the Pleiades, and the Milky Way. On rare occasions, we could even see the cosmic green curtains of the northern lights.
Realizing that we are tiny, transient flecks in the vast universe leaves us feeling more connected, researchers have found. My siblings and I felt it seeing the sky from the earth. Astronauts feel it seeing the earth from the sky. It’s called the overview effect. “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” wrote the poet Archibald MacLeish in 1968 on seeing Earthrise, the first human photo taken of our planet from space, “is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together.”
What we find awe-inducing is deeply personal. For older people, faith is a common source of transcendence, one that overlaps with purpose and connection. Religion allows engagement with the divine in a way that’s both individual and collective, guided by ancient rules reinterpreted through the generations and by each individual.
For my father, storytelling was bred in the bone. He knew how to tell them, and he loved hearing good ones. For him, there was no finer way to spend an evening than exchanging stories, told or sung, with other storytellers, especially his Irish friends and family. As he got old, at some point it dawned on me that there were lots of his stories I didn’t know, that the time to hear them was running out.
Old age is a rich time for storytelling, but one that’s often lost because we closet away older people, or we can’t deal with the painful, unfixable parts of what they have to say, or it doesn’t occur to us to ask, figuring there will be more time. So, we miss out on lots of great history, often our own. Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, encourages young people to carve out quiet time with older relatives to summon those stories into existence. The “simple act of listening to another person,” Isay said, “could make that person feel valued, respected, and dignified.” The telling too can be transformative.
“Storytelling is fundamental to the human search for meaning,” wrote the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, “whether we tell tales of the creation of the earth or of our own early choices.” The process is improvisational. We discover “the shape of our creation along the way.” We are homo narrans—narrating humans. Our “narrative identity” grows from the stories we compose about our lives: where we come from, how we got that way, and where we’re going.
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