Scholars on Aging Series: R U Cosmically Gerotranscendent?

On life's meaning in old age

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I have been following the psychology-based literature about transcendence in old age, with a close eye on the theory of gerotranscendence (GT), which has elements of self-transcendence and cosmic transcendence, as championed by Swedish Psychologist Lars Tornstam, who came up with the theory in the 1980s. I identify closely with Tornstam’s theory and have previously wrote about it. GT is a fascinating aging-related topic.

There’s not a whole lot of free or inexpensive literature to draw from to describe, in detail, the GT theory. Tornstam did write a book on it, but it’s a relatively expensive textbook. You can get a free-sample Kindle version that provides his introduction and most of chapter one, which includes the following definition of GT:

“The gerotranscendent individual, as we shall see, typically experiences a redefinition of the self and of relationships to others and a new understanding of fundamental, existential questions. The individual becomes, for example, less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities. There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decrease in interest in superfluous social interaction. The individual might also experience a decrease in interest in material things and a greater need for solitary “meditation.” Positive solitude becomes more important. There is also often a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, and a redefinition of time, space, life, and death.”

I find the notion of cosmic communion most intriguing. In a 2006 paper published in The Journals of Gerontology, series b, titled “Cosmic Transcendence and Framework of Meaning in Life: Patterns Among Older Adults in The Netherlands,” five Dutch psychology professionals drew heavily from Tornstam’s work and addressed three related questions: 1. How does cosmic transcendence relate to older adults finding more meaning in life? 2. If it does promote more feelings of meaning, are religious folks more prone to it than non-religious folks? 3. Are there any demographic characteristics of cosmically transcendent folks?

Surprisingly the association between cosmic transcendence and meaning in life “proved to be stronger among people who were not religiously involved,” and, perhaps not surprisingly, more pronounced among women 75 and older or widowed. Other than the older women, cosmic transcendence did not correlate with age in the study, although the authors did state that “tentatively” as we grow older “cosmic transcendence seems to unfold as a more important domain in one’s life.” I know that has been the case for me in my early old age years.

In another article out of the Netherlands, published in 2016, researchers reviewed 10 years of interviews conducted with several thousand folks age 57 to 86 who were part of the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam. Higher levels of cosmic transcendence were identified in the oldest study respondents, and it was noted that “an inclination toward relativism and contemplation may facilitate cosmic transcendence.” It makes sense that as we grow into the oldest levels of aging, when we are obviously closer to death, we may find the theory of gerotranscendence appealing. I think relativism here simply means the discovery of personal truth based on a person’s beliefs and cultural and/or religious and spiritual influences. Contemplation in this context simply means thinking deeply (or perhaps better stated, cosmically) about the meaning of life.

A 2011 study by two Canadian psychologists identified older-adult “transcenders” as people who were less depressed; had higher meaning and purpose in their lives; owned a “greater sense of choice and control in directing one’s life; and had higher scores on the global personality dimensions of extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.”

Beyond the Self, Regardless of Religion
In psychology, the whole notion of cosmic transcendence is often inter-changeable with the notion of self-transcendence, as both terms are noted as character/personality traits with very similar meanings. Both are related to identifying with concepts outside of one’s self through spirituality, a lessening of ego, and inner feelings of connection to the cosmos or to the greater good, so to speak. Both terms strongly correlate to the idea of “striving towards something greater than ourselves,” wrote PhD Paul T. P. Wong, referring to Victor Frankl’s concepts of transcendence, in a 2016 article titled “Self-Transcendence: A Paradoxical Way to Become Your Best.” Wong strongly links self-transcendence, as his title suggests, to “paradoxically” being selfless, as well as to religion (unlike the Dutch study), saying that it connects us to a higher power (cosmic) and with other people.

“We find our home when we become fully aware of our connectiveness,” he wrote. “In other words, we are hardwired to love God and love people; in serving God and others, we meet our spiritual needs for self-transcendence. Thus, love is at the heart of self-transcendence; the practice of self-transcendence is also consistent with the Christian teaching of a loving God and loving your neighbor.”

Incidentally, Wong is a well-known-and-established clinical psychologist and professor emeritus of Trent University and adjunct professor at Saybrook University, as well as a Christian minister. While I have enjoyed reading many of his articles, I don’t agree with his religious overtones as being necessary for experiencing transcendence. One can be an atheist, for instance, and still be transcendent and find plenty of meaning in life. Nonetheless, Wong is a prolific writer who has published extensively on such topics as existential psychology, positive psychology, and purpose and meaning in life. In this same article where he mentions God and a higher power, he also provides a secular-oriented point of view with the following portrait of a self-transcendent individual:

“A person’s greatest ambition and satisfaction is to fully develop his potential so that he can make a significant contribution to the world. In his daily interactions, he consistently places his concern for others above self-interest. He is willing to forfeit his rights for the common good. He works tirelessly and cheerfully because he loves what he does and believes that his work is consistent with his end-value and life purpose. By having a servant’s heart, his impact on others is actually enhanced because his selfless devotion is inspirational.”

Wong added that having a servant’s heart is a “hard sell” in today’s individualistic society. The Canadian study, however, found that people who are individualistic by nature are not less satisfied with their lives than selfless transcendent individuals.

More posts coming in the near future on the many interesting parameters concerning meaning in life for older adults. . .

Thanks for stopping by,


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