Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology



First Advisor

Albert Silverstein


This dissertation attempts to advance our understanding of how we as human beings perceive, judge, and evaluate our lives, particularly in the last stage of the life cycle. The primary goal was to counterbalance the predominantly quantitative approach to meaning in life with a qualitative approach by interviewing 21 older adults as they reflected on and attempted to find purpose and value in the totality of their experiences. This goal was explicit on the point of wanting older adults, those ideally positioned in the lifespan to inform us about meaning in life, to speak without the restriction associated with response options and format. Guided by the approach of phenomenology which emphasizes immediate description, the participants' responses to interview questions were summarized and, to the extent possible, reporting preserved their actual words. Participants articulated in their own voices that (1) "meaning in life" is about helping others; (2) having a sense of purpose; (3) maintaining relationship – especially with family; and (4) subjective well-being. They reported that life has been and continues to be meaningful, and they attributed their sense of meaning to three higher order factors: affiliation, agency and control, and self-transcendence. The second goal of this study explored the relationship between meaning in life and quality of life through self-report estimates. Participants indicated on a Likert scale of 1-10 how much meaning in and quality of life they perceive having both in the present, and retrospectively, for life as a whole. Results indicated that quality of life in the present did not diminish relative to the past, meaning in life in the past correlated with quality of life, but estimates of meaning in life in the present did not correlate with quality of life estimates or with meaning in life in the past. This supports the notion that meaning in life is experienced as distinct from quality of life. It also accords with Erikson's psychosocial theory of development which predicts that during late adulthood individuals confront the inevitability of a finite existence. From this perspective, they review the life they've lived, hoping to achieve a sense of integrity. The third goal was to compare a larger sample of older adults with a sample of college students on overall quality of life. Analysis revealed that older adults reported higher quality of life and also differed with regard to the different dimensions that contributed to quality of life. Out of 16 life areas, the following were most closely associated with overall quality of life scores for older adults: relatives, goals and values, home, helping, community and children.



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