Aging and meaningfulness in life

Presented with findings on the life situation and health condition of older persons in Philippine society, most readers of this column found themselves prompted to compare their own experience of aging with that of the general population. Many were happy to note that they were not doing so badly. They have less severe pains, less serious falls, and longer times of undisturbed sleep. Though they may often have difficulty finding their way inside shopping malls, they could still go out on their own, buy their own medicines, and even take public transport. More importantly, they could still go to the bathroom unassisted, dress up, and eat by themselves.

No doubt, one cannot underestimate the value of being able to independently perform life’s daily activities. They are thankful they are not bedridden or suffering from a dreadful illness. I suppose this feeling is not so different from the mixed sense of gratitude and doom we feel when we mourn the passing of friends and contemporaries much younger than us.

As we listen to the tributes given in their honor, we are either filled with admiration for the way they successfully shaped their lives, or commiseration for the way in which their promising lives had come to a worthless end. We come back to ourselves wondering how it might be for us when the time comes. Would our lives be considered meaningful? Would we feel fulfilled, and not just happy or morally affirmed? There is a brief section in the 2018 Longitudinal Study of Aging and Health in the Philippines—the pathbreaking research that I first reported in last week’s column—which deals with loneliness and satisfaction among older Filipinos. It appears that loneliness is relatively low among them. Even more interesting—a finding which may seem to confirm the widespread belief that Filipinos are among the happiest people in the world—almost half (47.5 percent) of Filipinos aged 60 and above say they are “very satisfied” with their lives, while 46.1 percent report to being “somewhat satisfied,” and only 6.4 percent say they are not “satisfied.”

It is difficult to say what satisfaction with one’s life refers to exactly. It could mean contentment, though not necessarily happiness or fulfillment. The latter term suggests the belief that everyone has a purpose in life that we either actualize or fail to realize in the time given to us.This is the stuff that Susan Wolf, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, expounds in her provocative book, “Meaning in Life.” Here, she argues that “meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging them in a positive way.” You love someone or something when you not only care for it in a deep way, but also find yourself gripped or excited by it in a way that summons all your passions. This is the subjective part.

The objective part comes when the object of your love is deemed—not just by you but by others as well—to be worthy of all the attention and time you lavish on it. This is perhaps the most contentious of Wolf’s argument; it suggests the existence of an objective standard for measuring the worthiness of the object of one’s love. To her, worthiness means that the attractiveness of something is based not only on one’s own personal feelings but on the belief of others as well whose opinions one values.

Finally, meaningfulness entails active engagement with (not just passive admiration for or contemplation of) the object of one’s passionate attention. In the active pursuit of one’s love, one seeks “to create it, protect it, promote it, or honor it, or more generally, to actively affirm it in some way or other.”

What I find most enticing in Professor Wolf’s definition of meaningfulness is her insistence that this concept is different from happiness or living a moral life. When, in the fading years of our life, we ask if our lives have been meaningful, we know, she says, that we are not just asking whether we are content with what we have, or feel happy, or if we have fulfilled our duty in God’s or society’s eyes.

We are, in fact, asking if we believe that we have found the true object of our love, and pursued it with passion till the end, in contrast to settling for a way of life not chosen by us, or being stuck with someone, or trapped into doing something worthless—out of duty, or lack of courage, or because nothing better appeared in our life.

Quite obviously, meaningfulness has very little to do with the amount of wealth or properties one has accumulated, or the power or fame one has achieved, in the course of one’s lifetime. Rather, it has everything to do with the sense of fulfillment one experiences not just in those things that promote our self-interest, but also in those we regard as having a value larger than ourselves.

When that sense of fulfillment is missing, writes Wolf, one is struck by a feeling of emptiness, or by an awareness of something missing, or of a life that is incomplete. On the other hand, when we contemplate the lives of others and wonder if theirs have been meaningful or less so, we do so by relating these lives to something larger than them—what they did for others or for their country, or for humanity in general. We would be less concerned with the quality of their inner lives, and, even less, with the huge personal fortunes they leave behind.

What sort of things do Filipinos, especially those facing their sunset years, associate with a meaningful life? There are no data for this. But it is a question worth pondering as we enter not just another year but a new decade.

Happy New Year everyone!