Finding Truth and Meaning in Your Senior Years
We tend to measure ourselves based on our accomplishments and the goals we’ve achieved. This can be especially true for seniors, who have the gift of a lifetime’s worth of experiences to reflect on. While it may be impossible to nail down the true meaning of life, let’s look at a few theories in the field of psychology and consider how applying these schools of thoughts to our own lives may help us discover truth and meaning, regardless of what life stage we’re in.
Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory
Erik Erikson was a 20th century developmental psychologist; he created a psychoanalytic theory of development that focused on 8 stages of life—from infancy to adulthood. Each psychosocial stage is unique to a specific phase of life during which a person’s development depends on their ability to acquire personal traits that help them adjust to their environment. For example, during the first stage of life—usually from birth to 1.5 years old—babies focus on trust. Is someone consistently caring for their basic needs to help them feel comforted and secure? Once this trust is developed, they can move on to a different psychosocial focus.
Any of the eight stages can be experienced during any part of life and we each have a distinct path that makes us unique individuals, but the two later developmental stages of this theory are especially pertinent to aging:
Stage 7: Generativity vs Stagnation
This stage focuses on the age range of 40-65. Individuals in this part of life are often focused on work and purpose: Have I contributed to society and have I made a difference?
Stage 8: Ego Integrity vs Despair
This stage focuses on older adults around the age range of 65 plus. This stage consists of looking at life as a whole and feeling a sense of fulfillment.
Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who founded the school of thought, logotherapy—a form of existential analysis that is often called the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.” Frankl was a Holocaust survivor; after experiencing suffering at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, he developed to logotherapy to add structure to “man’s search for meaning,” especially in circumstances where an individual has only two options: death or survival. The principles of logotherapy include the following:
- All circumstances of life hold value and meaning, including times of suffering.
- A person’s main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in our lives.
- We have personal freedom to find meaning in what we do and in our attitude toward the unfortunate events we endure and the mistakes we make.
How do I apply these theories to my own life?
Erikson’s and Frankl’s theories share the common belief that everyone—seniors included—can find meaning in both pleasurable and miserable experiences. Frankl’s theory focuses on the will to find meaning in life rather than striving to find pleasure; after all, suffering is often unavoidable and can lead to growth.
If you are approaching retirement or another major life milestone, think about all you were able to contribute to yourself and others as a result of your life’s work. Even if you didn’t go as far as you would have liked to in your career, consider the idea that you were able to feed your family for the past forty years or that you were an expert at a given trade while making an impact on the people you were surrounded by every day. Take your focus away from strict measurements of success like physical wealth; focusing instead on your daily impact will help you find deeper meaning in all stages of life.