Lars Tornstam (1943 – 2016)
My recent post, Summary of Maslow on Self-Transcendence, elicited many thoughtful comments. One reader, Dr. Janet Hively, suggested that self-transcendence is connected with aging, “people gain experience and wisdom as they grow older, reaching the age for generativity toward the end of life.” She also suggested that I look into the theory of gerotranscendence, elucidated in detail by the Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam in his 2005 book, Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging. As Tornstam put it:
Gerotranscendence is the final stage in a natural process moving toward maturation and wisdom. The gerotranscendent individual experiences a new feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, a redefinition of time, space, life and death, and a redefinition of self.1
Here is another definition:
The theory of gerotranscendence describes a … perspective shift from a more materialistic and rational view of life to a more transcendental [one] … leading to significant changes in the way of perceiving self, relationships with other people and life as a whole …2
According to Tornstam, growing older and “into old age has its very own meaning and character, distinct from young adulthood or middle age.” In other words, there is ongoing personality development into old age. Interviews with individuals between 52 and 97 years of age confirmed this idea and led to his theory of gerotranscendence. Gerotranscendent individuals are those who develop new understandings of: 1) the self; 2) relationships to others; and 3) the cosmic level of nature, time, and the universe. Specific changes that occur include:
Level of Self
- A decreased obsession with one’s body
- A decreased interest in material things
- A decrease in self-centeredness
- An increased desire to understand oneself
- An increased desire for inner peace and meditation
- An increased need for solitude
Level of Personal and Social Relationships
- A decreased desire for prestige
- A decreased desire for superfluous, superficial social interaction
- A decreased interest in conforming to social roles
- An increased concern for others
- An increased need for solitude, or the company of only a few intimates
- An increased selectivity in the choice of social and other activities
- An increased spontaneity that moves beyond social norms
- An increase in tolerance and broadmindness
- An increased sense of life’s ambiguity
- A decreased distinction between past and present
- A decreased fear of death
- An increased affinity with, and interest in, past and future generations
- An increased acceptance of the mysteries of human life
- An increased joy over small or insignificant things
- An increased appreciation of nature
- An increased feeling of communion with the universe and cosmic awareness
According to the theory of gerotranscendence, people should surrender their youthful identity in order to achieve true maturity and wisdom. This view of aging stands in contrast to the view that successful aging is a kind of perpetual youth where people try to remain active, productive, independent, healthy, wealthy, and sociable. But an 80-year-old differs from their 50-year-old self, just as the latter did from their 30-year-old self. Your 80-year-old mother may not want to party, play golf, make money or be very much engaged, not because she’s sick or depressed, but because she now prefers painting, reading, writing, meditating, walking, gardening, or listening to music. We are often so enamored with activity that we forget that Mom may enjoy sitting in her rocking chair sometimes. None of this implies that this is the only way to successfully age, just that it is a reasonable way.
Now just growing older doesn’t mean that one will become gerotranscendent, although aging does elevate existential questions about death and the meaning of life to the forefront. So how does one become a gerotranscendent? The process is mostly stimulated by experiencing hardships, challenges, transitions, and the losses of living, combined with a continual reflection about one’s life, the life of others, and universal life. Still, there are a number of obstacles to becoming a gerotranscendent including:
- job preoccupation (or ego differentiation): the inability to let go of your earlier careers. Gerotranscenders are able to transcend the way that their identity was tied to their previous work.
- body preoccupation (or body transcendence): the inability to let go of obsessing about bodily ailments. Gerotranscenders care about their bodies but transcend identifying with them.
- ego preoccupation (or ego transcendence): inability to let go of obsessing about the ego. Gerotranscenders transcend the ego by accepting the inevitability of death and by living more unselfishly.
Some of the weaknesses of the theory include the fact that gerotranscendence: 1) isn’t precisely defined; 2) is limited to old age when there are some younger persons who possess the above qualities; and 3) considers gerotranscendence from an individual perspective without much consideration of the social and biological factors that influence successful aging. It also seems to conflict with the fact that “the prevalence of depression in old age” is quite high.3
Still, there is substantial evidence that gerotranscendence captures the essence of aging successfully. Much of this research is described in “Theory of Gerotranscendence: An Analysis,” by Rajani and Nawaid. Some of the highlights of this research show that those who have faced life crises have higher levels of gerotranscendence, and that there is “a positive relationship between gerotranscendence and life satisfaction.” Furthermore, research has shown “a significant correlation between the cosmic transcendence and feeling of coherence and meaning of life. Transcendence in life promotes health, harmony, healing and meaningfulness in life of older adults. Studies have also attested the fact that people who find meaning in life tend to experience better physical health.”
Reflections – I like the gerotranscendent theory of aging. It reminds me somewhat of the idea of being “weened away from life” in Thorton Wilder’s marvelous play “Our Town.” It also brings to mind this profound statement about aging from the great philosopher Bertrand Russell in his essay, “How To Grow Old.”
The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, +without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.
So I do agree with Dr. Hively that there is a connection between age, and the wisdom to transcend the self and its concern with body, prestige, material possessions. Maslow’s self-transcendence is closely aligned with Tornstam’s gerotranscendence. This kind of wisdom and change of heart is hard to achieve without having lived and loved and suffered—the wisdom of the heart seems largely based upon time. This isn’t to say that older people are always wiser than younger people but, all things being equal, living long helps us achieve wisdom.
Yet, I still believe that death itself is an evil that we should try to defeat. As I’ve written elsewhere, death should be optional. But for those of us who must age and die, Tornstam has shown us a noble and enlightening way to travel that road.
(I was led to Tornstam’s work when I encountered Maslow on self-transcendence.)
1. “Transcendence in late life.” Generations, 23 (4), p. 11.
3. Rivard TM, Buchanan D. National Guidelines for Seniors’ Mental Health: The Assessment and Treatment of Depression. 2006.
I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Jan Hively for introducing me to Tornstam’s work.