Does the meaning of life change with age?

30th March 2021 by RetireEasy

While many of us are comfortable with the notion that “42” is the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”, some people disagree – and even point out that our perception of the meaning of life actually changes as we age.

By Tony Watts OBE

Most of us, and not just “Hitchhiker’s Guide author Douglas Adams, at some point get to pondering about life and our purpose within it. Some people even make a career of it… while others turn to alcohol, narcotics or other forms of self-medication simply to avoid the issue.

What I hadn’t stopped to consider, however, until I read a very interesting article recently, was how our interpretation of what we would term “the meaning of life” might vary depending upon our age.

I suppose it’s obvious when you look at it. I’m a very different person than the fresh-faced chap in flares and platform soles who started University 50 years ago. That said, my favourite tracks have never changed from Jean Genie and Alright Now in the intervening years. But a chap called David B. Feldman has articulated it quite neatly in an article which is linked at the bottom of this one.

He takes up the idea that “between our teenage and middle-age years, we’re busy establishing our lives by undertaking tasks like finding someone to love and growing a career. But as people enter their mid 60s, they reduce this relentless pursuit, instead of looking back and asking: “Was this good?”

He also points to research that “older people report having fewer goals than their younger counterparts and spend somewhat more time reminiscing about the past. In other words, for younger people, life’s meaning hasn’t yet fully unfolded—it’s about future possibilities. As we age, however, meaning may be more about looking back and counting our blessings.”

I’m not sure that these things are incompatible or even opposites.

Yes, I do look back on my life quite a lot, but not so much to count my blessings (which are considerable in the scheme of things) as to try and make sense of it all from a different (older) perspective. I can now, finally, forgive myself some of the follies I committed looking back, and even write off time-consuming exercises as helpfully informing me never to go down that particular road again.

Conversely, I also look back with even more horror at the times I was particularly unkind or selfish. Not so much “reminiscing” as reassessing.

But I don’t think I’m any less ambitious now than then… it’s just that my ambitions have changed. And they are no longer just for myself and my partner, but for my children and grandchildren. Indeed, their triumphs give me far more quiet pleasure than my own.

I still set myself regular targets to do something I haven’t achieved before. So, if you add my ambitions for them to my own, I probably have more now in total than when I started on my career!

For instance, this last month I have spent a lot of time on my bike, raising money for a cancer charity, and I couldn’t resist aiming for the most miles I’ve ever done in that time frame: 500… and I did it. I still want to pursue goals – and I’m not sure if that necessarily diminishes with age as the author suggests.

“Meaning” to me now – at 68 – is really all about what extra value I can add to my life and others in the time I’ve got available. Is that really so different from when I was a young man?

Do let us know what you think on this topic.


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