A life well lived?
Today I’ve reached the final stage of Erik Erikson’s model of psychosocial development, that of later adulthood, which he suggested occurs in the years after we are 65. This is a period of looking back on life and making sense of our experience of it. Erikson suggests the focus is on reflecting on whether the life lived thus far has been meaningful and satisfying. The triggers for this stage may be retirement, bereavement, serious or terminal illness, a change of physical capacity or other significant life changes associated with the transition from middle adulthood into later adulthood.
Erikson used the word ‘integrity’ to describe the sense of a life well-lived, suggesting that individuals would feel whole and wise, and accepting of themselves if they felt they had contributed and were connected, that their life had made a difference. He suggested they may feel peaceful, and successful when reflecting back on life. While integrity seems to be a strange word to use here, the meaning seems informative.
On the other hand, Erikson suggested some may feel despairing if they find themselves reflecting on their regret, shame and disappointment with the way life had been. He described feeling bitter and/or unproductive, sensing that life had been wasted.
It would be easy to read this stage as one of reflecting on an already done deal. I don’t perceive it this way. Contribution and connectedness are things that we are wise to attend to throughout life, and life beyond 65 is as good a time as any. Supportive family, achievements at work and contributions socially and in the community from earlier in life certainly will feed a sense of satisfaction, but I also sense there is opportunity and hope at any time of life that one can enhance quality of life in these ways. Reframing thinking and practising gratitude can be helpful as well. If despair is a common or pervasive experience then reaching out and talking to people about it can be beneficial, including medical or therapeutic practitioners where appropriate.
I like that Erikson’s model spans all of life rather than childhood alone as some other models do. It seems to be not to be entirely linear, and that unresolved conflicts from past stages can be addressed later in life, this is one of the benefits of therapeutic work although there are many other ways to achieve healing.
At any time in life it is good to reflect on life thus far, to sense how well lived it has been, and to make course corrections to increase vigour, connectedness and joy. What are you most proud of in your life? What would you like to be remembered for? And how will you make sure that is your legacy?
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