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

J Clin Psychiatry. 2019 Dec 10;81(1):19m13064. doi: 10.4088/JCP.19m13064.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • California
  • Cognition*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emotional Adjustment*
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Healthy Aging / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Independent Living / psychology
  • Independent Living / statistics & numerical data
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Personal Satisfaction
  • Quality of Life / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult