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Finding Purpose in the Afternoon of Life

Finding meaning within, as well as through social connections.

Key points

  • The stages of life are generally delineated, but one does not have to conform to expectations.
  • As we age, we are able to profit from our earlier experiences, develop a different view of life, and be better prepared for challenges.
  • In the end, it is not the length of the afternoon of our lives, but the depth of the social connections we have forged.

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung analogized the human life journey to that of the sun, but one “endowed with human feeling and man’s limited consciousness.” In the morning it rises out of the nocturnal darkness of unconsciousness, analogous to being born. Then one emerges into a wide and bright world, rising up, and in the process discovering, as does the sun, its significance, reaching its peak at noon. Jung described this rising and peaking as "the morning of life."

During the morning of life, humans are driven toward outer-focused goals: to create a family, earn money, build a career, and establish one’s self in the world. In life’s morning, one emerges from childhood and adolescence into adulthood and peaks at middle age achievement.

PeopleImages - Yuri A/Shutterstock
Source: PeopleImages - Yuri A/Shutterstock

The afternoon of life marks the descent, like the dimming of the sun’s light and warmth, into late middle age and old age. Jung observed that the drives in the morning of life divert the psyche into a denial of the finite nature of one’s own journey. This is not so easily dismissed as we pass middle adulthood into late adulthood. In the afternoon of life, there is a realization that we have lived more days than we are likely to live.

Choosing whether to follow the expectations of aging

How, then, does one do this trick: to live the afternoon of life with the same zest, energy, and the eye’s steadfast and unflinching glance cast toward tomorrow, despite the dimming rays of the afternoon? Beyond the contemplation of mortality, and perhaps by facing it squarely, like by drawing up a “bucket list,” the travails of getting older can assault our psychological sense of self in terms of who we are in this world.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson theorized that human development progressed in stages, each with its own psychosocial crisis. In late adulthood, the seventh and eighth stages become prominent.

The seventh stage, that of generativity versus stagnation, concerns moving beyond one’s own family to that of future generations, society, the world, and efforts to make the world a better place to live. On the other side is stagnation, where self-absorption of the “I” needs are the dominant concern.

The eighth stage is that of integrity versus despair. Integrity is fostered by the ability to look back on one’s life with satisfaction. The other side, despair, is looking back and experiencing deep regret; despair that one's time has passed and there is no more opportunity to seize the day. Overcoming the crisis of integrity versus despair is particularly difficult in older age, as health issues may limit autonomy. For older adults, autonomy may be undercut by dependency on others, passivity, and a diminished sense of purpose in life.

Moreover, meaning is often equated with what we do: such as building and sustaining a family and a career. Is this realistic in the late afternoon of life? Western culture can be ageist. There may be an unspoken sense that those in the late afternoon of life had their day in the sun and now it is time to yield the baton to the young.

How many financial or high-tech mavens are there in their 80s and 90s? How many people approaching their 65th birthday are asked, “are you retiring?” Youth is valued and equated with positive attributes. The young take prominence within social and print media, movies, and television. They are viewed as the high-tech wunderkind gurus, the inventors, the leaders, the movie stars, and the personification of attractiveness. Is meaning and purpose in life therefore the purview of youth? Should those in late middle age just admit this?

Jung rejected this gloomy conclusion. He wrote, “…the afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only its meaning and purpose are different.” Jung believed that in the morning of life one looked outside for meaning: a focus on the body and looks; achievement; and a way to make one’s mark in the world. In the afternoon of life, one had to find that meaning from within. This last stage involved a recognition of the self as a spiritual being. Jung viewed the process as requiring a disengagement of sorts from the identity and values formed in the morning of our life. In the late afternoon of life, Jung thought one gained perspective as an observer of our selves, the life we have led. Those in the afternoon of life have the lived experience—the scars of the battles and the lessons from them.

Focusing on what makes us happy should be one of the prominent factors during one’s later years.

We may need to recognize that the wine of youth spoils. What was meaningful and purposeful in the morning of life is no longer palatable when we are older. Redefining meaning and purpose, not recasting it in the same mold as we did in our youth may be the route to take if we want to drain the cup to its last.

Jung’s lectures were given in 1932; yet consider this observation he made that resonates in our 21st-century world, “For the most part our old people try to compete with the young.” Jung viewed this clinging to youth as “always striving to turn back.” New ventures in the afternoon, particularly the late afternoon of life, do not have to be unseemly, like wearing the garments of the young, be it figurative or literal.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked the lives of 724 men since 1938, when they were teenagers, offers a rare glimpse into life’s journey and its lessons about happiness. One group in the study was comprised of Harvard College sophomores and the other was from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Loneliness, grudge-holding, and conflictual relationships led to poor health. Those who were the happiest in retirement had actively engaged in filling the social gaps created by leaving the workplace, reviving stale relationships, and doing new things.

The afternoon of our lives may be short, like the winter’s day, or long like a summer’s day. In the end, it is not the length of the afternoon of our lives, but the depth of the social connections we have forged that are warm, nurturing, and fulfilling. Robert Waldinger, the lead researcher in the Harvard study, aptly summarized the findings: the good life is built on good relationships. This is artistry in living.


Erikson, E. H., Erikson, J. M., & Kivnick, H. Q. (1986). Vital involvement in old age. W. W. Norton.

Jung, C. G. (1933). Modern man in search of a soul. Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Company, LTD

Perry, T. E., Hasseyoort, L., Ruggianao, N., & Shtompel, N. (2015). Applying Erikson’s wisdom to self-management practices of older adults: findings from two field studies. Research on Aging, 37(3), 253-274. doi: 10.1177/0164027514527974.

Waldinger, R. (2015, November). What makes the good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. TED Talk.

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