The Meaning of Life

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Deep Thought the supercomputer said “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” was calculated as 42.

Published by Nigel Pritchard on Feb 23, 2021

In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams Deep Thought the supercomputer said “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” was calculated as 42. However, we never really learnt what the question was answering. Was it possibly the meaning of life? something that philosophers down the ages have grappled with. Now, if that was the question, the answer, in my view, should have been 50 (and over).

Why?, well going through some papers the other day, I found some research from last year and was reminded of an old article in The Times newspaper, dated the 11th December 2019, which talked about a research study from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, which had found that on average we feel that our lives have most purpose around the age of 60. We are told that the study tracked 1,000 people aged 21 to over 100 for 3 years who were regularly questioned on several areas, including how much purpose their existence held. Interestingly the more positive people were the better health they were in. Interviewed by The Times, Dilip Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and neuroscience said, “Our research shows that wellbeing and the meaning of life are intimately linked. Those with meaning in life are healthier and happier than those without it.”

Then there is life according to neuro-scientist Daniel Levitin, who last year said that happiness declines in our 30s and picks back up in our mid-50s. In his book ‘The Changing Mind’ he says “as a group (older generations) are actually happier than younger people.” He arrives at these conclusions from studying hundreds of global studies including from such august bodies as Harvard University and journals like Nature. He attributes this later in life surge of euphoria to the fact that we don’t have “too high expectations” unlike younger generations and we finally “realise that life is pretty good”. He also cites the importance of exercise, exploring new things, loving relationships and ditching the more poisonous ones.

This is not particularly startling information to many of us in this golden period of our lives given that most of us see it as a time of opportunity and re-invention, where we feel we have the independence to explore our purpose in life and society at large. Still it’s great knowing we’re not going mad and a lot of academic research reflects our reality; the positive lives we lead and the opportunities that lie in store.

Now, all this talk of positivity gets me onto one of my favourite grumpy rants, but before I start I feel I have to put on record that my grumpiness, as my wife can attest to, has nothing to do with my age – enough said, so on with the rant – why if there is so much evidence on ageing being a positive happy experience do we see such negativity on social media platforms, news outlets and the internet in general?

The answer may lie in a couple of things, first its easier to sell sensationalist negative narratives and then there are those pesky algorithms used in the AI toolkits of global search engines, stock photo libraries and social media platforms. The digital world has a case to answer as ‘algorithmic bias’ has a tendency to replicate and amplify unrealistic depictions of people in later life, helping to promulgate and reinforce negative, ageist stereotypes of older age.

Two UK universities, Newcastle, and Northumbria, are trying to take on these ageist algorithms and create a more authentic and realistic depiction of later life, Dan Lambton-Howard, researcher at Open Lab in Newcastle University said, “We want to challenge algorithmic biases to create a more diverse and authentic representation of ageing and later life.”

The research is part of an initiative between the universities, the town of Swindon and UK Research and Innovation. If you would like to get involved the online #FestivalOfTomorrow organisers are asking people to post photos of growing older under one of the following headings:

•This is my everyday
•Don’t underestimate me
•A shared passion

I for one, fully propose to enjoy my older future with a positive, clear sense of purpose and I take heart from something Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Great words to raise a glass to, and I fully intend to.