Over 60 years ago, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson identified what he considered to be the key psychological issue of late adulthood. According to Erikson, as someone realizes that death is drawing closer, he or she looks back over the entire span of life. Those older adults who, taking life as a whole, decide that their lives had meaning and that they made a significant contribution develop a sense of ego integrity. Those who see their lives as a pattern of wrong choices, missed opportunities, and failures will have a sense of despair.
Both my personal experience with older adults and my work as a psychologist have brought me in contact with those who were doing (or had already done) the sort of life review that Erikson described. In the last couple decades of my dad’s life he developed a strong sense that his military service in Europe during WWII and what he did for his family and community after returning to Michigan had meaning. On the other hand, some elderly clients I have worked with had despaired as they looked back on the many mistakes and poor choices they had made. It wasn’t easy for them to find specks of gold amidst the dross they believe their life has produced!
I recently ran across a study that gives some insight into the sort of life that leads to a sense of ego integrity. In 2009, Belgian researchers Alain VanHiel and Maarten VanSteenkiste had older adults complete a series of questionnaires. One questionnaire measured ego integrity, another measured despair, and two more measured the extent to which the participants believed they had achieved life goals. There were two types of life goals measured: intrinsic goals and extrinsic goals. Intrinsic goals have to do with achieving autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In other words, a person who has achieved intrinsic goals might decide following a life review:
- I chose the career, mate, and living arrangement I wanted, not what someone else chose for me (autonomy),
- I was a capable worker, an effective parent, and an attentive mate (competence), and
- I had good friends, a loving mate, and children with whom I continue to have good relationships (relatedness).
On the other hand, external life goals have to do with accomplishments that may be significant in their own right but don’t meet core psychological needs. These include fame, financial success, and physical attractiveness. Though there is some correlation between attainment of intrinsic and of extrinsic life goals, it certainly is possible to be high on one set of goals but low on the other.
Two studies found that older adults who achieved intrinsic life goals were more likely than those who hadn’t to experience ego integrity. On the other hand, those who achieved extrinsic life goals without intrinsic life goals were high on despair. The second study also found that having achieved intrinsic goals was associated with less anxiety about death, but extrinsic goal achievement without intrinsic goal achievement predicted more anxiety about death.
Fame, wealth, and attractiveness are not bad things, but they are not the things that satisfy us the most. As we near the end of life, being able to say “I was famous,” “I was rich,” or “I was beautiful” may not matter all that much. It will probably be more important to say “I chose well” (autonomy), “I was capable” (competence), and “I loved and was loved in return” (relatedness). I hope those are the things I’ll be saying when the end of life is near.