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Rediscovering Purpose: Finding Meaning in Retirement Age

In the course “Dynamics of Individual Differences“, students write a blog post on a topic of their interest that is related to an aspect that differs between individuals and changes across the lifespan. Brage shared his blog post with us, enjoy!

Last week, I called my grandfather to congratulate him on his 80th birthday. «What a wonderful achievement! You must be very proud.» He thanked me and was in high spirits, though I could tell he was reflecting on what symbolized a final chapter for him. I told him I was writing a blog post on finding meaning as a retiree. «With work you have a community» he told me, «And when you retire, you realize how much that matters, not only in keeping up with your colleagues but also the world at large». I got the sense that he struggled with the feeling of being left behind, as though he could no longer contribute. I sympathised with him – It seemed to me that retirement would be a stage of life ripe for an existential crisis, but could it be that it also provides an opportunity to experience a renewed sense of meaning?
The psychological literature surrounding work and meaning suggests that for many, work is more than a pay-check (Ward & King, 2017). This is well reflected in numerous studies which have found that the majority of people would choose to continue to work if they could financially afford not to (Arvey, Harpaz, & Liao, 2004; Highhouse, Zickar, & Yankelevich, 2010; Morse & Weiss, 1955), and even demonstrated empirically in that near two thirds of lottery winners continue with the full-time work positions they held prior to having won (Arvey and colleagues, 2004). The idea then that work serves a purpose which transcends a salary is evident. In fact, work provides numerous factors which contribute to a sense of meaning, such as a social role and identity (Froidevaux et al., 2018), a routine (Bailey & Fernando, 2012), and a platform for contributing to the world in a greater sense (Clark & Arnold, 2008).
Meaning has been defined as a subjective state or judgment regarding how one feels about their life (Stieger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006). But what exactly shapes this idea? According to Martela and Steger (2016), it consists of several key elements, encompassing purpose, significance, and coherence as contributing factrs. Purpose represents the goal-directed aspect of generating meaning, that of setting targets and striving towards them. Significance speaks of the role of social interaction, and finally coherence which points towards having structure and consistency in day-to-day life.
These three components proposed by Martela & Steger correspond considerably well with the factors that work provides. For instance, with respect to routines, there is some research which demonstrates environmental regularities and patterns as providing more coherence in peoples lives. Likewise, a decrease in meaning is felt when regularly dealing with chaotic environments and patterns (Heintzelman et al., 2013). Given that consistencies in these domains generate coherence, it makes sense that the routines and structure provided by work heighten feelings of meaning.
The establishment of a social role speaks for the ‘significance’ element in generating meaning. For example, the experience of social exclusion has been shown to have profound effects on people’s view of their lives as meaningful (Williams, 2007). There is also research which suggests that the relationship is reciprocal (O’Donnell et al., 2014). In this context, work provides an opportunity for social contact, feedback, as well as a platform for contributing to the world in a larger sense. Work then has the potential to fulfill the criteria of establishing a social role and having an identity.
Finally, work provides one with goals, the achievement of which contributes to a sense of meaning. Particularly, establishing goals that contribute to something larger than one-self, known in the psychological literature as ‘generativity’, has been shown to instill significance and purpose to ones life (Mor-Barak, 1995). It would seem then that work is a crucial factor in generating meaning in ones life, and so the subsequent elimination of these factors that come with work pose a clear problem for the transition into retirement. How then would one in retirement seek meaning in an effective way?
Erik Erikson, a German-American psychoanalyst, may just have an answer to this question. In the 1950’s, he developed a theory of psychosocial development consisting of eight distinct developmental stages from infancy to elderly life, with each stage providing a favourable and unfavourable potential outcome. The goal of the last stage is integrity, and depending on the success of its development, this stage leads to the development of either wisdom or contempt. Erikson considers this the stage which spans ages 65 and up, where retirement is either fast approaching or has already occurred. As a consequence, the individual must manage to accept the course their life has taken – all of its victories and defeats, its accomplishments and lack thereof. If this is managed, then wisdom is cultivated as a result. Wisdom is defined by Erikson as ‘informed and detached concern for life itself in the face of death itself’. To summarize, Erikson states that acceptance is crucial for the cultivation of meaning in elderly.
There is evidence to suggest that unlike younger individuals, the elderly experience a unique set of challenges that heighten the importance of certain psychological factors in their lives. Andrews & Robinson’s study in 1991 shed light on this with a rather surprising finding. They found that traditional markers of wellbeing such as health (both self-assessed and objectively measured), socioeconomic status, functional ability, marital status, physical activity, and social support astonishingly contribute to only about 15% of overall wellbeing in the elderly.
This finding naturally shifts our attention to psychological factors, which seem to play a more significant role in elderly wellbeing. Supporting this shift in focus, a study by Gray and colleagues in 1992 underscores the importance of psychological indicators. Their research highlights elements like a sense of control, perceived usefulness, and having goals and purpose in life as key predictors of wellbeing in older adults. Intriguingly, these factors account for a much larger portion of the variance in wellbeing, with some studies suggesting it could be upwards of 50%.
A potential explanation for this seemingly drastic difference in variance can be found in the psychological literature on stress and coping, which proposes two forms: problem-focused and emotional-focused coping (Lazarus & DeLongis, 1983). Let me explain… imagine you have a psychological problem like that of feeling lonely. An appropriate approach to this feeling could be to seek out a community or social group in the hope of finding some new friends. This is considered problem-focused coping, where the solution to your problem has an external solution. However, you may not approach psychological issues in this way, and instead prefer attempting to change the way you feel about the situation – this is referred to as ‘emotional-coping’. The solution to feeling lonely in this case may be to write out your feelings in the attempt to process them, or to meditate on the feelings themselves in search of a resolution. Regardless, your solution to the psychological problem in this case is found inwardly.
Of course, as you get older, the declines in health, cognitive function, and social interaction are inevitable. Therefore, the ability of a problem-focused approach becomes more limited, and the emphasis on an emotional-focused approach may be more beneficial. The acceptance of one’s life course is a psychological indicator which can be considered to be involved in emotional-focused coping and may therefore play a significant part in the maintenance of well-being past the age of retirement.
A well cited study by Ranzijn and Luszcz (1999) attempted to explore exactly this relationship between acceptance and well-being. Gathering a sizeable 840 participants, they assessed their self-report measures using the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener et al., 1985). Within this scale, Ranzijn and Luszcz focused in on two particular items, identified as being especially relevant in measuring the role of acceptance in life satisfaction: ‘So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life’ and ‘If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing’. After controlling for health and income, variables known to play a big role in the influence of wellbeing, their results provided a significant relationship between acceptance and well-being. Further, the study found rather noteworthy correlations for both highlighted items in their relation to overall acceptance. The correlation for the item concerning having achieved important life goals was particularly strong, with a coefficient of .62. Similarly, the item about the desire to change little in one’s life past also showed a significant relationship, with a correlation coefficient of .57.
To further bring forth this exploration of acceptance and its positive impact on well-being, we can examine the role of acceptance from the perspective of its antithesis – that of denial and suppression. In the psychological literature, this is referred to as ‘experiential avoidance’, and has many times been considered as the opposite pole to psychological acceptance (Butler & Ciarrochi, 2006). The concept points towards those tendencies of attempting to changing the form or frequency of psychological events. The psychological literature surrounding this concept seem to be in unanimous agreement regarding their findings, fundamentally suggesting that experiental avoidance leads to the opposite of the wanted result – namely an increase in the presence of unwanted and suppressed thoughts, and the subsequent negative emotional reactions that follow (Chawla & Ostafin, 2008).
So we can safely conclude that acceptance plays a vital role in the discovery of meaning post-retirement. This then leads us to a crucial juncture, how is it that psychological acceptance be cultivated? Well, a form of cognitive behavioural therapy known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) emerges as a particularly relevant intervention. ACT is designed with the explicit aim of teaching individuals to stop avoiding or denying psychological events, and instead come to understanding that they are appropriate responses to certain situations. This approach could be particularly beneficial for individuals in their post-retirement years who may be grappling with feelings of regret or a sense of an unfulfilled life. By embracing these feelings rather than resisting them, meaning would be fostered and the likelihood of living the latter stages of life with disdain and contempt would be minimized. The little research that has assessed the efficacy of ACT on those in post-retirement has yielded encouraging results (Golestanifar, DashtBozorgi, 2020; Dinarvand, Irani, Forstmeier, 2021; Samakoush, Yousefi; 2022), with some studies suggesting that it can be even more beneficial as an intervention for their well-being than cognitive behavioural therapy (Asghari, Maddahi, Kraskian, 2019).
Retirement then, is a stage of life ripe for an existential crisis, but it definitely also provides a new and unique opportunity for finding meaning in your life. Take my grandfather again as an example. It would seem that he is caught between the wisdom that Erikson describes and the existential battle that accompanies the stage that is retirement. When he reflects upon the loss of community and the ensuing sense of detachment that follows, we can see this not as just a mere grievance, but a struggle to reconcile with an inevitable stage of life. If I were to find myself in a situation where I could help, I would perhaps try and guide him as best as I can towards acceptance – that of embracing their life course with grace.



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