Purpose in life is a defining feature of mental health. In old age, maintaining high levels of purpose in life may become more difficult, due to increasing losses (e.g., widowhood, retirement). Meta-analysis was used to synthesize findings from 70 studies on purpose in life in middle age and old age. We found a small age-associated decline of purpose in life, which was stronger in older age-groups. Purpose in life showed a strong association with social integration, and with relational quality in particular. In addition, high purpose in life was related to better health, higher everyday competence, higher socioeconomic status, being employed, and being married. Furthermore, strong associations with psychological well-being and low levels of depressive symptoms were found. We conclude that relying on sources that have low or even no age-associated decline, such as social integration and previous attainments, counteract strong declines of purpose in life in old age.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Antonelli, E., & Cucconi, L. (1998). Effetti del pensionamento sul benessere psycologico, il concetto di se’ e l’autostima [Effects of retirement on psychological well-being and self-esteem]. Ricerche di Psicologia, 22, 27–55.
Arling, G. (1976). The elderly widow and her family, neighbors and friends. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 38, 757–768.
Bar-Tur, L., & Prager, E. (1996). Sources of personal meaning in a sample of young-old and old-old Israelis. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 21(2), 59–75.
Baum, S. K. (1988). Meaningful life experiences for elderly persons. Psychological Reports, 63, 427–433.
Baum, S. K., & Stewart, R. B. (1990). Sources of meaning through the lifespan. Psychological Reports, 67, 3–14.
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford.
Beck, A. T., & Steer, R. A. (1987). Beck Depression Inventory- Manual. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.
Becker, P. (1989). Der Trierer Persönlichkeitsfragebogen TPF [The Trier Personality Questionnaire]. Göttingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Bookwala, J., & Schulz, R. (1996). Spousal similarity in subjective well-being: The Cardiovascular Health Study. Psychology and Aging, 11, 582–590.
Bradburn, N. (1969). The structure of psychological well-being. Chicago, IL: Adline.
Brandtstädter, J. (1999). Sources of resilience in the aging self: Toward integrating perspectives. In T. M. Hess & F. Blanchard-Fields (Eds.), Social cognition and aging (pp. 125–141). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Bushman, B. J., & Wang, M. C. (1995). A procedure of combining sample correlation coefficients and vote counts to obtain an estimate and a confidence interval for the population correlation coefficient. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 530–546.
Cantor, M. (1979). Neighbors and friends: An overlooked resource in the informal support system. Research on Aging, 1, 434–463.
Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165–181.
Carter, M. A. (1995). Adaptation to retirement: Role changes and psychological resources. Career Development Quarterly, 44, 67–82.
Chang, R., & Dodder, R. (1983–84). A modified purpose of life scale: A cross national validity study. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 18, 207–217.
Cicirelli, V. G. (1983). Adult children’s attachment and helping behavior to elderly parents: A path model. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 815–825.
Clark, P. J., Marshall, V. W., Ryff, C. D., & Rosenthal, C. J. (2000). Well-being in Canadian seniors: Findings from the Canadian Study of Health and Aging. Canadian Journal on Aging, 19, 139–159.
Coleman, P., Ivani-Chalian, C., & Robinson, M. (1993). Self-esteem and its sources: Stability and change in later life. Aging and Society, 13, 171–192.
Coward, D. (1996). Self transcendence and correlates in a healthy population. Nursing Research, 45, 116–121.
Coyle, J. M. (Ed.). (1997). Handbook on women and aging. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Crumbaugh, J. C., & Maholick, L. T. (1969). Manual and instructions for the Purpose in Life Test. Muster, IN: Psychometric Affiliates.
Debats, D. L., Van der Lubbe, P. M., & Wezeman, F. R. (1993). On the psychometric properties of the Life Regard Index (LRI): A measure of meaningful life: An evaluation in three independent samples based on the Dutch version. Personality and Individual Differences, 14, 337–345.
Dittmann-Kohli, F. (1995). Das persönliche Sinnsystem. Ein Vergleich zwischen frühem und spätem Erwachsenenalter [The personal meaning system: Comparison of young adulthood and old age]. Göttingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Ebersole, P. (1998). Types and depth of written life meanings. In P. T. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning (pp. 178–191). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ebersole, P., & DePaola, S. (1989). Meaning in life depth in the active married elderly. Journal of Psychology, 123, 171–178.
Faltenmaier, T., Mayring, P., Saup, W., & Strehmel, P. (1992). Entwicklungspsychologie des Erwachsenenalters [Adult developmental psychology]. Stuttgart, Germany: Kohlhammer.
Fenton, F. R., Cole, M. G., Engelsman, F., & Mansouri, I. (1997). Depression in older medical inpatients: One-year course and outcome. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 12, 389–394.
Ferring, D., & Filipp, S.-H. (1999). Soziale Netze im Alter: Selektivität der Netzwerkgestaltung, wahrgenommene Qualität der Sozialbeziehungen und Affekt [Social networks in old age: Socioemotional selectivity, perceived quality of social interactions, and affect]. Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie, 31, 127–137.
Fletcher, S. (1981). An investigation of the relationship of locus of control and social opportunity to life satisfaction and purpose of life among elderly women. Unpublished dissertation, New York University, New York.
Frankl, V. (1963). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Pocket Books.
Freund, A. M., & Baltes, P. B. (1998). Selection, optimization, and compensation as strategies of life management: Correlations with subjective indicators of successful aging. Psychology and Aging, 13, 531–543.
Fry, P. S. (1998). The development of personal meaning and wisdom in adolescence: A reexamination of moderating and consolidating factors and influences. In P. T. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning (pp. 91–110). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Fry, P. S. (2001). The unique contribution of key existential factors to the prediction of psychological well-being of older adults following spousal loss. The Gerontologist, 41, 69–81.
Gerwood, J.B. (1995). The Purpose-in-Life Test: A comparison in elderly people by relational status, work, spirituality, and mood. Unpublished dissertation, University of Toledo, Toledo, OH.
Gerwood, J. B., LeBlanc, M., & Piazza, N. (1998). The Purpose-in-Life Test and religious denomination: Protestant and catholic scores in an elderly population. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 54, 49–53.
Gove, W. R., Ortega, S. T., & Style, C. B. (1989). The maturational and role perspectives on aging and self through the adult years: An empirical evaluation. American Journal of Sociology, 94, 1117–1145.
Grygielski, M., Januszewska, E., Januszewski, A., Juros, A., & Oles, P. (1984). Meaning in life and hopelessness: Interrelationships and intergroup differences. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 15, 277–284.
Gutierrez, C. E. (1992). Existential theory, ego development, purpose in life, and death anxiety among older adults. Unpublished dissertation, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.
Heidrich, S. M. (1993) The relationship between physical health and psychological well-being in elderly women: A developmental perspective. Research in Nursing and Health, 16, 123–130.
Heidrich, S. M. (1996). Mechanisms related to psychological well-being in older women with chronic illnesses: Age and disease comparisons. Research in Nursing and Health, 19, 225–235.
Heidrich, S. M. (1998). Older women’s lives through time. Advances in Nursing Science, 20, 65–75.
Heidrich, S. M. (2001, November). Symptoms, symptom perceptions, and quality of life in older women with breast cancer versus other chronic illness. Paper presented at the 54th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Chicago, IL.
Heidrich, S. M., Forsthoff, C. A., & Ward, S. E. (1994). Psychological adjustment in adults with cancer: The self-system as mediator. Health Psychology, 13, 346–353.
Heidrich, S. M., & Wells, T. J. (1999, November). The effect of urinary incontinence on psychological well-being and distress in old age. Paper presented at the 52nd Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, San Francisco, CA.
Henudomsub, P., & Heidrich, S. M. (2001, November). Perception of usefulness: Its impact on well-being. Paper presented at the 54th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Chicago, IL.
Hong, J., Seltzer, M. M., & Krauss, M. W. (2001). Change in social support and psychological well-being: A longitudinal study of aging mothers of adults with mental retardation. Family Relations, 50, 154–163.
Hurst, S. I. (1991). Locus-of-control and life satisfaction as predictors of purpose and happiness across midlife and senior years: Gender and age differences. Unpublished dissertation, United States International University, San Diego, CA.
Hutchinson, I. W. (1975). The significance of marital status for morale and life satisfaction among lower-income elderly. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 37, 287–293.
Kivelä, S.L., & Pahkala, K. (1988). Clinical rated symptoms and signs of depression in aged Finns. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 34, 274–284.
Kling, K., Seltzer, M. M., & Ryff, C. D. (1997). Distinctive late-life challenges: Implications for coping and well-being. Psychology and Aging, 12, 288–295.
Lapierre, S., Bouffard, L., Dubé, M., Labelle, R., & Bastin, E. (2001). Aspirations and well-being in old age. In P. Schmuck, & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Life goals and well-being (pp. 102–115). Kirkland, WA: Hogrefe.
Lepkowski, R. (1956). The attitudes and adjustment of institutionalized and non-institutionalized catholic aged. Journal of Gerontology, 2, 189–191.
Martin, P., Poon, L. W., Kim, E., & Johnson, M. A. (1996). Social and psychological resources in the oldest old. Experimental Aging Research, 22, 121–139.
Mason, E. (1954). Some correlates of self-judgements of the aged. Journal of Gerontology, 9, 324–327.
Meier, A., & Edwards, H. (1974). Purpose-in-Life-Test: Age and sex differences. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 30, 384–386.
Meier, P. (1992). Sinnsuche im Umfeld eines kritischen Lebensereignisses [Search for meaning and a critical life event]. Regensburg, Germany: Roderer.
Miller, B. (1990). Gender differences in spouse caregiver strain: Socialization and role explanations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 311–321.
Mutran, E.J., & Burke, P. (1979). Personality as a determinant of old age identity. Research on Aging, 1, 37–63.
Nies, H., & Munnichs, J. (1987). Sinngebung und Altern [Purpose in life and old age]. Berlin, Germany: DZA
Nixdorf, J. (2002). Lebenszielcommitment bei Krebspatienten im höheren Alter [Goal commitment in elderly cancer patients]. Unpublished diploma thesis, University of Jena, Jena, Germany.
O’Conner, P. B., & Vallerand, R. J. (1978). Psychological adjustment variables as predictors of mortality among nursing home residents. Psychology and Aging, 13, 368–374.
Orbach, I., Iluz, A., & Rosenheim, E. (1987). Value system and commitment to goals as a function of age, integration of personality, and fear of death. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 10, 225–230.
O’Rouke, W. D. (1976). The relationship between religiousness, purpose in life and fear of death. Unpublished dissertation, Boston College, Boston, MA.
Palmore, E. (1981). Social patterns in normal aging: Findings from the Duke Longitudinal Study. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Perrig-Chiello, P. (1997). Wohlbefinden im Alter [Well-being in old age]. Weinheim, Germany: Juventa.
Peretti, P., & Wilson, C. (1975). Voluntary and involuntary retirement of aged males and their effect on emotion of satisfaction, usefulness, self-image, emotional stability and interpersonal relations. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 6, 131–138.
Pinquart, M. (2001). Age differences in perceived positive affect, negative affect, and affect balance in middle and old age. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2(4), 345–405.
Pinquart, M., & Sörensen, S. (2000). Influences of socioeconomic status, social network and competence on psychological well-being in later life: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 15, 187–224.
Pinquart, M., & Sörensen, S. (2001). Gender differences in self-concept and psychological well-being in old age: A meta-analysis. Journals of Gerontology, Psychological Sciences, 56B, P195–213.
Pintos, C. C. (1988). Depression and the will to meaning: A comparison of the GDS and the PIL in an Argentine population. Clinical Gerontologist, 7(3/4), 3–9.
Prager, E. (1996). Exploring personal meaning in an age-differentiated Australian sample: Another look at the Sources of Meaning Profile. Journal of Aging Studies, 10, 117–136.
Prager, E. (1998a). Observations of personal meaning sources for Israeli age cohorts. Aging and Mental Health, 2, 128–136.
Prager, E. (1998b). Men and meaning in later life. Journal of Clinical Geropsychology, 4, 191–203.
Prager, E., Bar-Tur, L., & Abramowici, I. (1997). The Source of Meaning Profile (SOMP) with aged subjects exhibiting depressive symptomatology. Clinical Gerontologist, 17(3), 25–39.
Quackenbush, S., & Barnett, M. (1995). Correlates of reminiscence activity among elderly individuals. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 41, 169–181.
Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale. A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Journal of Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385–401.
Reker, G. T., Peacock, E. J., & Wong, P. T. (1987). Meaning and purpose in life and well-being: A life-span perspective. Journal of Gerontology, 42, 44–49.
Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. (1988). Aging as an individual process: Toward a theory of personal meaning. In J. Birren & V. Bengtson (Eds.), Emergent theories on aging (pp. 214–247). New York: Springer.
Reitzes, D. C., Mutran, E.J., & Ferandez, M. E. (1994). Middle-aged working men and women: Similar and different paths to self-esteem. Research on Aging, 16, 355–374.
Robbins, S. B., Lee, R. M., & Wan, T. T. (1994). Goal continuity as a mediator of early retirement adjustment: Testing a multidimensional model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41, 18–26.
Rosenmayr, L. (1983). Die späte Freiheit [Late freedom]. Berlin, Germany: Severin & Seidler.
Rosenthal, R. (1991). Meta-analytic procedures for social research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Rosenthal, R. (1994). Parametric measures of effect size. In H. Cooper & L.V. Hedges (Eds.), Handbook of research synthesis (pp. 231–244). New York: Sage.
Ruuskanen, J., & Ruoppila, I. (1995). Physical activity and psychological well-being among people aged 65 to 84 years. Age and Ageing, 24, 292–296.
Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069–1081.
Ryff, C. D. (1991). Possible selves in adulthood and old age: A tale of shifting horizons. Psychology and Aging, 6, 286–295.
Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, L.M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revised. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 719–727.
Ryff, C. D., Lee, Y. H., Essex, M. J., & Schmutte, P. S. (1994). My children and me: Midlife evaluations of grown children and of self. Psychology and Aging, 9, 195–205.
Ryff, C. D., & Heidrich, S. M. (1997). Experience and well-being: Explorations on domains of life and how they matter. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 20, 193–206.
Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (1998). The role of purpose in life and personal growth in positive human health. In P. T. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning (pp. 213–235). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Spiro, A., & Bossé, R. (2000). Relations between health-related quality of life and well-being: The gerontologist’s new clothes? International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 50, 50, 297–318.
Spruytte, N., Verschueren, K., & Marcoen, A. (1999). Grootouders: hun beleving van de relatie met het oudste kleinkind en hun welbevinden [Grandparents: Their experience of the relationship with the oldest grandchild and their psychological well-being]. Tijdschrift voor Gerontologie en Geriatrie, 30, 21–30.
Stevens, E. (1993). Making sense of usefulness: An avenue toward satisfaction in later life. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 37, 313–325.
Stevens, N. (1997). Friendship and well being: A course for older women. Tijdschrift voor Gerontologie en Geriatrie, 28, 18–26.
Streib, G. F., & Schneider, C. J. (1971). Retirement in American society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Thompson, L.W., Gantz, F., Florsheim, M., DelMaestro, S., Rodman, J., Gallagher-Thompson, D., & Bryan, H. (1991). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for affective disorders in the elderly. In W. Myers (Ed.), New techniques in the psychotherapy of older patients (pp. 3–19). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Tismer, K.-G., Lange, U., Erlemeier, N., & Tismer-Puschner, J. (1976). Psychosoziale Aspekte der Situation älterer Menschen [Psychosocial aspects of elderly people]. Stuttgart, Germany: Kohlhammer.
Tran, T. V., Wright, R., & Chatters, L. (1991). Health, stress, psychological resources and subjective well-being among older blacks. Psychology & Aging, 6, 100–108.
Ulmer, A., Range, L. M., & Smith, P. C. (1991). Purpose in life: A moderator of recovery from bereavement. Omega, 23, 279–289.
Walsh, F. (1998). Strengthening family resilience. New York: Guilford Press.
Wineman, N. M. (1990). Adaptation to multiple sclerosis: The role of social support, functional disability, and perceived uncertainty. Nursing Research, 39, 294–299.
Wong, P. T. (1998a). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In P. T. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning (pp. 111–140). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wong, P. T. (1998b). Spirituality, meaning, and successful aging. In P. T. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning (pp. 359–394). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wong, P. T. (1998c). Meaning-centered counseling. In P. T. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning (pp. 395–435). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Yarnell, T. D. (1971). Purpose-in-Life Test: Further correlates. Journal of Individual Psychology, 27, 76–79.
Zika, S., & Chamberlain, K. (1992). On the relation between meaning in life and psychological well-being. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 133–145.
Martin Pinquart, Dr. habil., is an associate professor of Developmental Psychology, University of Jena (Germany). His research interests include subjective wellbeing in old age, planning and goals in later life, coping with cancer, intergenerational relations.
About this article
Cite this article
Pinquart, M. Creating and maintaining purpose in life in old age: A meta-analysis. Ageing Int. 27, 90–114 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12126-002-1004-2
- Social Integration
- High Socioeconomic Status
- Meaningful Life
- Personal Meaning
- High Purpose