Meaning in life and the experience of older people

Main Article Content

Peter Derkx
Pien Bos
Hanne Laceulle
Anja Machielse


In this article, we introduce a general theory about meaning in life developed by our first author, and apply it to the context of ageing. The seven components of meaning distinguished by this theory – purpose, moral worth, selfworth, control, coherence, excitement and connectedness – are discussed in turn. After presenting the theory, we confront the seven  components with extensive life narratives of two older men – in a first empirical qualitative exploration of how meaning dimensions appear in the life experiences of older people. This dialogue between theory and narrative is used to provide concretisation and clarification of the seven components, thereby enhancing the understanding of the theory, while at the same time suggesting possible refinements and directions for future exploration of meaning in life in the context of ageing.


Metrics Loading ...

Article Details



Alma, H. A. & Smaling, A. (eds.) (2010). Waarvoor je leeft: Studies naar humanistische bronnen van zin [What You Live For: Inquiries into Human¬istic Sources of Meaning]. Amsterdam: SWP.

Baars, J., Dannefer, D., Phillipson, C. & Walker, A. (eds.) (2006). Aging, Globalization and Inequality: The New Critical Gerontology. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Baars, J., Dohmen, J., Grenier, A. & Phillipson, C. (eds.) (2013). Ageing, Meaning and Social Structure: Connecting Critical and Humanistic Gerontology. Bristol: Policy Press.

Bakan, D. (1966). The Duality of Human Existence: Isolation and Communion in Western Man. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of Life. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Benson, P. (1994) Free agency and self-worth. Journal of Philosophy 91(12): 650–668.

Bovenberg, L., Van Ewijk, C. & Westerhout, E. (eds.) (2012). The Future of Multi-Pillar Pensions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Carroll, N. (2009). Humour. In J. Levinson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available on (Accessed: May 25, 2018).

Cole, T. R. (1992). The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Coleman, P. G., Ivani-Chalian, C. & Robinson, M. (2015). Self and Meaning in the Lives of Older People: Case Studies over Twenty Years. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Derkx, P. (2011). Humanisme, zinvol leven en nooit meer ‘ouder worden’: een levensbeschouwelijke visie op ingrijpende biomedisch-technologische levensverlenging. [Humanism, Meaning in Life and ‘Never Ageing Anymore’: Reflections on Substantial Biomedical-Technological Life Extension, from a Worldview Perspective] Brussels: ASP, VUBPRESS.

Derkx, P. (2013). Humanism as a meaning frame. In A. B. Pinn (ed.), What Is Humanism and Why Does It Matter? (pp. 42–57). Durham: Acumen.

Derkx, P. (2015). The future of humanism. In A. Copson & A. C. Grayling (eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism (pp. 426–439). Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Derkx, P., Maas, A. & Machielse, A. (eds.) (2011). Goed ouder worden [Ageing Well]. Amsterdam: SWP.

Diener, E., Scollon, C. N. & Lucas, R. E. (2009). The evolving concept of subjective well-being: The multi-faceted nature of happiness. In E. Diener (ed.), Assessing Well-Being: The Collected Works of Ed Diener (pp. 67–100). Dordrecht: Springer.

Edmondson, R. (2015). Ageing, Insight and Wisdom: Meaning and Practice across the Lifecourse. Bristol: Policy Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed. Extended version with new chapters on the ninth stage of development by J. M. Erikson. New York, NY: Norton.

Ferring, D. & Hoffmann, M. (2007). “Still the same and better off than others?”: Social and temporal comparisons in old age. European Journal of Ageing 4: 23–34.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry 12(2): 219–245.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2008). Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frankl, V E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning (first published in German in 1946). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Gerber, J. P. (2017). Social comparison theory. In V. Zeigler Hill & T. K. Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International. Available on (Accessed: July 5, 2018).

Gerber, J. P, Wheeler, L. & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin 144(2): 177–197.

Heintzelman, S. J., Trent, J. & King, L. A. (2013). Encounters with objective coherence and the experience of meaning in life. Psychological Science 24(6): 991–998.

Hicks, J. & Routledge, C. (eds.) (2013). The Experience of Meaning in Life: Classical Perspectives, Emerging Themes, and Controversies. Dordrecht: Springer.

Hornsey, M. J. & Jetten, J. (2004). The individual within the group: Bal¬ancing the need to belong with the need to be different. Personality and Social Psychology Review 8(3): 248–264.

Hupkens, S., Machielse, A., Goumans, M. & Derkx, P. (2018). Meaning in life of older persons. An integrative literature review. Nursing Ethics 25(8): 973–991.

Immergut, E. M., Anderson, K. M. & Schulze, I. (2009). The Handbook of West European Pension Politics. Oxford University Press.

Inglis, T. (2014). Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland: Webs of Signifi¬cance. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Irving, J., Davis, S. & Collier, A. (2017). Aging with purpose: Systematic search and review of literature pertaining to older adults and purpose. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 85(4): 403–437.

Joubert, L. (2015). Humour and irony in Québec women’s writing, 1970-2010: Taking the pulse of a resistance. In C. Sugars (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature. New York, NY: Oxford Uni¬versity Press. Available on (Accessed: May 26, 2018).

Kennedy, B. K., Berger, S. L., Brunet, A., Campisi, J., Cuervo, A. M., Epel, E. S., Franceschi, C., Lithgow, G. J., Morimoto, R. I., Pessin, J. E., Rando, T. A., Richardson, A., Schadt, E. E., Wyss-Coray, T. & Sierra, F. (2014). Geroscience: Linking aging to chronic disease. Cell 159: 709–713.

Klemke, E. D. & Cahn, S. M. (eds.) (2008). The Meaning of Life: A Reader. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Komter, A. (2007). Gifts and social relations: The mechanisms of reciprocity. International Sociology 22(1): 93–107.
Martela, F. & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. The Journal of Positive Psychology 11(5): 531–545.

Mathews, G. (1996). What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mauss, M. (1966). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by I. Cunnison. With an Introduction by E. E. Evans-Pritchard. London: Cohen and West. Originally published in French in 1923–24.

May, T. (2015). A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

McAdams, D. P. (1993). The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

McAdams, D. P. (2009). The moral personality. In D. Narvaez & D. K. Lapsley (eds.), Personality, Identity, and Character: Explorations in Moral Psychology (pp. 11–29). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McAdams, D. P. (2011). Narrative identity. In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx & V. L. Vignoles (eds.), Handbook of Identity Theory and Research (pp. 99–115). New York: Springer.

Melton, A. M. A. & Schulenberg, S. E. (2007). On the relationship between meaning in life and boredom proneness: Examining a logotherapy postulate. Psychological Reports 101: 1016–1022.

Mooren, J. H. (1998). Zingeving en cognitieve regulatie: een conceptueel model ten behoeve van onderzoek naar zingeving en levensbeschou¬wing [Meaning and cognitive regulation: a conceptual model for research on meaning in life and worldviews]. In J. Janssen, R. Van Uden & H. Van Der Ven (eds.), Schering en inslag: opstellen over religie in de hedendaagse cultuur [Warp and Weft: Essays on Religion in Contempo¬rary Culture] (pp. 193–206). Nijmegen: Katholiek Studiecentrum voor Geestelijke Volksgezondheid.

Morgan, J. & Farsides, T. (2009). Measuring meaning in life. Journal of Happiness Studies 10(3): 197–214.

Morreall, J. (2016). Philosophy of humor. In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition). Available on (Accessed: May 31, 2018).

Olshansky, S. J., Perry, D., Miller, R. A. & Butler, R. N. (2006). In pursuit of the longevity dividend: What should we be doing to prepare for the unprecedented aging of humanity? The Scientist 20(3): 28–36.

Reinhardt, U. E. (2003). Does the aging of the population really drive the demand for health care? Health Affairs 22(6): 27–39.

Ryff, C.D. (2014). Psychological well-being revisited: Advances in the science and practice of eudaimonia. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 83(1): 10–28.

Sierra, F., Hadley, E., Suzman, R. & Hodes, R. (2009). Prospects for life span extension. Annual Review of Medicine 60: 457–469.

Smaling, A. & Alma, H. A. (2010). Zingeving en levensbeschouwing: een conceptuele en thematische verkenning [Meaning in life and worl¬dview: a conceptual and thematic exploration]. In H. A. Alma, & A. Smaling, (eds.), (2010). Waarvoor je leeft: studies naar humanistische bronnen van zin [What You Live For: Inquiries into Humanistic Sources of Meaning] (pp. 17–39). Amsterdam: SWP.

Steger, M. F., Beeby, A., Garrett, S. & Kashdan, T. B. (2013). Creating a stable architectural framework of existence: proposing a model of lifelong meaning. In I. Boniwell, S. A. David & A. C. Ayers (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Happiness. Available on www.oxfordhandbooks. com (Accessed: May 23, 2018).

Van Praag, J. P. (1982). Foundations of Humanism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Von Faber, M., Bootsma-Van Der Wiel, A., Van Exel, E., Gussekloo, J., Lagaay, A. M., Van Dongen, E., Knook, D. L., Van Der Geest, S. & Westendorp, R. G., (2001) Successful aging in the oldest old: Who can be characterized as successfully aged? Archives of Internal Medicine 161(22): 2694–2700.

Watkins, P. C. & McCurrach, D. (2017). Progress in the science of gratitude. In C. R. Snyder, S. J. Lopez, L. M. Edwards & S. C. Marques (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. Available on (Accessed: May 23, 2018).

Weiss, R. (1973). Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

WHOQOL Group (1998). Development of the World Health Organization WHOQOL-BREF quality of life assessment. Psychological Medicine 28(3): 551–558.

Wolf, S. (2010). Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. With Commentary by J. Koethke, R. M. Adams, N. Arpaly & J. Haidt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (ed.) (2012). The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications. New York, NY: Routledge.

Zweifel, P., Felder, S. & Meiers, M. (1999). Ageing of population and health care expenditure: A red herring? Health Economics 8(6): 485–496.