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Purpose in Life: A Reconceptualization for Very Late Life


Purpose in life has been defined as having goals, aims, objectives, and a sense of directedness that give meaning to one’s life and existence. Scales that measure purpose in life reflect this future-oriented conceptualization and research using these measures has consistently found that purpose in life tends to be lower for older adults than for those in earlier stages of life. In this article, we use an illustrative case study to explore the concept of purpose in life in very late life and critically challenge existing conceptualizations and measures of purpose in life. We examine the two most commonly used measures of purpose in life, the Purpose in Life Test and the Ryff Purpose Subscale and identify specific items that should be reconsidered for use with older adults in very late life. Guided by Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, we then reconceptualize purpose in life in very late life and posit that it consists of three domains—the retrospective past, the near present, and the transcendental post-mortem. We conclude with suggestions on the development of new measures of purpose in life in very late life that are reflective of this shift in time horizons and the specific characteristics of this unique time in life.

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All authors contributed to the conceptualization and writing of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Keith A. Anderson.

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Anderson, K.A., Fields, N.L., Cassidy, J. et al. Purpose in Life: A Reconceptualization for Very Late Life. J Happiness Stud 23, 2337–2348 (2022).

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  • Purpose in life
  • Very late life
  • Socioemotional selectivity theory
  • Centenarians