While the recent presidential election shone a light on the alienation and disengagement many Americans feel, the signs have been evident for some time. A growing number of men are idle, neither working nor looking for work. The opioid addiction crisis, which killed four times as many people last year as it did in 2000, rages on. Just last spring, the Centers for Disease Control announced that the suicide rate in this country had reached a 30-year high.
These trends have been attributed to everything from income inequality to declining religious attendance, and social scientists will continue to puzzle over them in the years to come. But their research has made one thing clear: our country is facing a crisis of meaning.
Human beings are creatures that seek and yearn for meaning. We all want to know that our lives amount to more than the sum of our experiences, that we are significant in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, though, millions of people are struggling today to understand what makes their lives worth living. According to the CDC, four in ten Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose, and nearly a quarter of Americans do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.
Despite all this, there is reason to hope. Social scientists have found that our society is in the middle of a major cultural transformation, moving from a focus on “material” concerns like money and consumer goods to “spiritual” ones like purpose and community. All across the country, medical professionals, business leaders, educators, clergymen, and ordinary people are changing the institutions in which we live and work in order to help us lead deeper and more generative lives. They’re building “cultures of meaning” that bring people together, keep them engaged, and help them contribute to their communities. And their work is paying dividends.
Reaching Out to Lonely Older Americans
Take the Age-Friendly NYC initiative. As people age, research finds that their sense of purpose declines. The identities that once gave them meaning—mother, Little League coach, doctor, supervisor—weaken or vanish, and they often struggle to replace them. Meanwhile, our youth-obsessed culture leaves them feeling marginalized or even invisible. It’s no wonder, then, that one-third of Americans 50 and older feel isolated and alone.
In 2007, New York City set out to change that. It created Age-Friendly NYC, a partnership between the New York Academy of Medicine, the mayor’s office, and the city council designed to enhance the health and well-being of older adults by making the city a better home for them—a place where they feel a sense of belonging, which is a critical ingredient of finding meaning in life.
Officials began by holding community forums and focus groups across the five boroughs to hear from older New Yorkers. A few topics came up again and again, but one overarching theme united many of their comments. Like most people, they simply wanted to lead good, fulfilling lives. But as they grew older, they found more and more obstacles getting in the way of that goal. Some of their concerns were practical, like pedestrian safety and the lack of affordable housing. Others said they wanted to be as engaged with the community as they had been when they were younger, but worried about and had experienced being disrespected because of their age.
Many of the age-friendly initiatives are designed to help older adults feel more comfortable, like adding more benches on sidewalks and implementing senior hours at some city pools. But others aim to give seniors an opportunity to use their strengths to give back to the community—to live with purpose.
Giving to Others Rebuilds Oneself
Success Mentor, for example, is an initiative that connects older individuals with at-risk children. Students who take part in Success Mentor do better in school and are less likely to be chronically absent. But there are also benefits for the adults: studies show that when adults volunteer locally, their physical and mental health improves.
Part of the reason is that volunteering makes them feel like useful and needed members of their communities, which is critically important to positive aging, as Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant has found. In his book “Aging Well,” Vaillant tells the story of one of his research subjects, a terminally ill and impoverished widow named Ellen, who found meaning at the end of her life by serving others in her position: “The wonderful thing about hospice work,” she said, “is you get so much more back than you give.”
Helping older adults live with meaning and dignity, says Age-Friendly NYC director Lindsay Goldman, helps the city as well: “If you promote health and well-being, you’ll have fewer people who are becoming dependent and in need of social insurance programs and city services.” Indeed, having meaning and purpose in life has been associated with a wide range of physical benefits, including better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of cognitive impairment. People who report more meaning in life are more likely to use preventive care services. They even live longer.
Addressing the existential vacuum that’s taken hold of our country feels daunting. But the success of programs like Age-Friendly NYC shows us that it’s not impossible. When we create cultures that give people the tools to lead meaningful lives—whether through public policy tweaks or private initiatives in our families, neighborhoods, schools, or religious communities—we can change lives. As one older New Yorker put it, “I’d like to do something that I can be proud of. I don’t mind getting old. I just want to be doing something.”