Meaning in Life and Its Relationship With Physical, Mental, and Cognitive Functioning: A Study of 1,042 Community-Dwelling Adults Across the Lifespan

Objective: To examine the relationship of presence and search for meaning in life with age, physical and mental well-being, and cognitive functioning across the adult lifespan.

Methods: Cross-sectional data from 1,042 adults in the Successful AGing Evaluation (SAGE)—a multicohort study of adult community-dwelling residents of San Diego County, California—were analyzed. Presence of meaning (“Presence”) and search for meaning in life (“Search”) were assessed with the Meaning in Life Questionnaire. Physical and mental well-being were measured using the Short Form 36 Health Survey (SF-36). Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status—modified was employed to screen for overall cognitive function. Study data were collected from January 2013 to June 2014.

Results: Presence of meaning exhibited an inverted U-shaped relationship whereas Search showed a U-shaped relationship with age (with Presence peaking and Search reaching the lowest point around age 60). Statistical modeling using generalized estimating equations revealed that physical well-being (SF-36 physical composite score) correlated negatively with age (P < .001) and positively with Presence (P < .001), and there was an age group x Presence interaction (P = .018), such that the relationship was stronger in subjects over age 60. Mental well-being correlated positively with age (P < .001) and Presence (P < .001) and negatively with Search (P = .002). Cognitive function correlated inversely with age (P < .001) and with Search (P < .001). Significant covariates of Presence and Search had small effect sizes, except for a medium effect size for satisfaction with life and Presence in adults over age 60 (P < .001).

Conclusions: Presence and search for meaning in life are important for health and well-being, though the relationships differ in adults younger and older than 60 years. Better understanding of the longitudinal relationships of meaning of life with well-being is warranted to design interventions to increase meaning of life and improve health and functioning.

J Clin Psychiatry 2020;81(1):19m13064

https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.19m13064