Lars Tornstam

Lars Tornstam

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Lars Tornstam

This article will review the life and works of Lars Tornstam and understand his impact on the world of psychology.

Lars Tornstam (1943-2017) was a Swedish sociologist and a pioneer of social gerontology. He wrote the first Swedish doctoral thesis in gerontological sociology in 1973, and later became a professor of sociology at Uppsala University, where he launched the first Swedish academic courses in gerontology (Tornstam, 2005). He also served as an adjunct professor of social gerontology at Aalborg University in Denmark for five years.

Tornstam is best known for his theory of gerotranscendence, which he developed based on interviews with older adults between 52 and 97 years of age over two decades of research. According to this theory, ageing involves a shift in perspective from a materialistic and rational view of life to a more cosmic and transcendent one, leading to a decrease in self-centredness, superficial relationships, and worldly concerns, and an increase in wisdom, spirituality, and connectedness with oneself, others, and nature (Tornstam, 2017; Tornstam, 2005). They also become more selective and detached from social roles and expectations, and more connected with themselves, nature, and the cosmos (Tornstam, 2005).

Tornstam argued that gerotranscendence is a natural and positive aspect of human development that can enhance wellbeing and quality of life in later years. He also suggested that religious factors can facilitate or hinder the process of gerotranscendence depending on their compatibility with the gerotranscendent world-view (Tornstam, 2022).

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Tornstam’s theory has been compared to Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs, especially the concept of self-transcendence that Maslow added later in his life (Health Report Live, 2022). The theory has been influential in the field of social gerontology and has inspired empirical studies, interventions, and policy recommendations to promote positive ageing and well-being among older adults (Summary of Lars Tornstam on Gerotranscendence, 2017).

The theory of gerotranscendence

Gerotranscendence is a theory of positive ageing that suggests that older adults undergo a shift in perspective from a materialistic and rational view of life to a more cosmic and transcendent one. The following sentence illustrates this concept: “As people age, they become less concerned with superficial aspects of their identity and more interested in finding meaning and purpose in their existence.”

The theory includes the concept of the three dimensions of gerotranscendence proposed by Tornstam (2005): cosmic, ego, and social. According to Tornstam, cosmic gerotranscendence involves a greater connection with nature, the universe, and spirituality; ego gerotranscendence involves a reduced self-centredness, increased self-acceptance, and decreased fear of death; and social gerotranscendence involves a selective and more profound relationship with others, a decreased interest in social norms, and an increased altruism.

Using these dimensions, we can say that the sentence implies that older adults experience cosmic gerotranscendence when they seek meaning and purpose in their existence beyond the material world; ego gerotranscendence when they become less concerned with superficial aspects of their identity such as appearance, status, or achievements; and social gerotranscendence when they prioritize quality over quantity in their social interactions and express more compassion and generosity towards others.

Some examples of gerotranscendence in practice are: volunteering for a cause that aligns with one’s values, meditating or praying regularly, spending time in nature or with animals, joining a support group or a community of like-minded people, writing a memoir or a legacy letter, or engaging in creative activities such as art, music, or poetry.

According to this theory, ageing involves:

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A shift in perspective from a materialistic and rational view of life to a more cosmic and transcendent one

This means that older adults become less concerned with worldly and practical matters, such as money, status, or achievements, and more interested in the meaning and purpose of life, the connection with nature and the universe, and the transcendence of the self. For example, an older adult who has achieved gerotranscendence may spend more time in meditation, prayer, or contemplation, or may seek out experiences that enhance their sense of awe and wonder, such as watching a sunrise or listening to music. They may also become more detached from their ego and personal identity, and more aware of their interdependence with others and with the divine. This shift in perspective can help older adults cope with the challenges and losses of ageing, as well as enrich their quality of life and wellbeing.

A decrease in self-centredness, superficial relationships, and worldly concerns, and an increase in wisdom, spirituality, and connectedness with oneself, others, and nature (Tornstam, 2017; Tornstam, 2005)

This summarizes the main aspects of gerotranscendence. Gerotranscendence is a theory that proposes that normal human ageing involves a shift in perspective from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one (Sloww, n.d.). According to this theory, older people develop a new understanding of themselves, their relationships, their existential questions, and their place in the universe (HRF, n.d.).

For example, an older person who experiences gerotranscendence may feel less attached to their possessions, more interested in their family history, more accepting of death, and more curious about the mysteries of life (ChangingAging, n.d.).

Gerotranscendence is seen as a positive aspect of ageing that can enhance life satisfaction and wellbeing (Open Education Sociology Dictionary, n.d.). Tornstam (2017; 2005) is the main author of this theory and has conducted several studies to support it (Springer, 2022).

Becoming more selective and detached from social roles and expectations, and more connected with themselves, nature, and the cosmos (Tornstam, 2005)

One of the main aspects of gerotranscendence, is “a shift in meta-perspective from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction” (Sloww, n.d.). According to this theory, older people undergo a process of redefining their self, relationships, and existential questions, as well as a new understanding of time, space, life, death, and mystery. For example, an older person who experiences gerotranscendence may feel less attached to their social roles or status, and more interested in their inner growth or spiritual connection. They may also feel more empathy and compassion for others, and less fear or anxiety about death. Tornstam (2005) argues that gerotranscendence is a natural and universal phenomenon that can be facilitated by personal and environmental factors. He also suggests that gerotranscendence can improve the quality of life and well-being of older people.

Praise and criticism of gerotranscendence

The theory of gerotranscendence has been praised for offering a positive and holistic view of ageing that challenges the negative stereotypes and ageism prevalent in modern society (ChangingAging, n.d.). It has also been supported by empirical studies that have found positive correlations between gerotranscendence and wellbeing, life satisfaction, happiness, and spirituality among older adults (Zhang et al., 2022).

However, the theory has also been criticized for being vague, culturally biased, and normative. Some critics have argued that gerotranscendence is not a universal phenomenon, but rather a reflection of the values and beliefs of certain cultures or groups (Zhang et al., 2022). Others have questioned whether gerotranscendence is a desirable or attainable goal for all older people, or whether it imposes unrealistic expectations and pressures on them (ChangingAging, n.d.).

Publications

Lars Tornstam has written several books and articles about the theory of gerotranscendence, such as:

A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging (2005)

In this publication, the theory of gerotranscendence was proposed by Lars Tornstam in 1989. It is a developmental theory of positive ageing that describes a shift in perspective and values that occurs in later life. According to this theory, older adults transcend the material and rational aspects of life and move towards a more cosmic and transcendent view of reality. Tornstam (2005) defines gerotranscendence as “a shift in meta-perspective, from a materialistic and rational vision to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally followed by an increase in life satisfaction” (p. 15).

The theory of gerotranscendence is based on empirical research conducted by Tornstam and other theorists, as well as on philosophical and existential perspectives. Tornstam (2005) provides several examples of gerotranscendent individuals, such as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. He also presents evidence from qualitative and quantitative studies that support the validity and reliability of his theory. However, he acknowledges that gerotranscendence is not a universal or deterministic process, but rather a potential and individual one that may vary depending on personal and contextual factors.

Gerotranscendence (2011)

In this publication, Tornstam expanded further on his theory of Gerotranscendence. He described gerotranscendence as “a natural phase or component of the normal ageing process” (p. 166) that involves three dimensions: cosmic, personal and social. Some examples of gerotranscendental changes are: a decreased interest in superficial social interactions, a greater appreciation of solitude, a deeper connection with nature and the universe, a reduced fear of death, and a more flexible and tolerant attitude towards oneself and others. Tornstam (2011) argued that gerotranscendence is not a pathological or abnormal phenomenon, but rather “a potential for further human growth beyond the stage of maturity” (p. 167). He also suggested that gerotranscendence can be facilitated by life experiences, existential crises, meditation and spiritual practices.

Maturing into Gerotranscendence (2011)

The article “Maturing into Gerotranscendence” by Lars Tornstam (2011) presents the theory of gerotranscendence, which describes a possible shift in perspective and understanding of life that may occur in old age. Tornstam defines gerotranscendence as “a natural and positive direction for human development beyond the standard criteria of successful ageing” (p. 166). The theory suggests that ageing is not only a process of decline and loss, but also a potential for growth and wisdom.

Tornstam provides several examples of gerotranscendental changes, such as a reduced interest in superficial social interactions, a greater appreciation of solitude and silence, a more profound understanding of life’s paradoxes and mysteries, and a more positive attitude toward death. The author also discusses the factors that may facilitate or hinder the development of gerotranscendence, such as personality, culture, spirituality, health and life events.

The author concludes that gerotranscendence is a valuable concept for understanding human ageing and promoting well-being in later life. The author also suggests that gerotranscendence has implications for social policy, education and health care, as well as for personal growth and development.

He has also conducted empirical studies to support his theory, using both qualitative and quantitative methods, and has suggested practical implications for gerontological practice and education (Tornstam, 2011).

Tornstam’s work has been influential in the field of gerontology and has inspired further research and debate on the meaning and potential of ageing (Reason & meaning, 2017).

References

ChangingAging. (n.d.). Gerotranscendence. Retrieved from https://changingaging.org/aging101/gerotranscendence/

Health Report Live. (2022). Gerotranscendence: Often Overlooked Virtues of Aging. Retrieved from https://healthreportlive.com/gerotranscendence/

HRF. (n.d.). Gerotranscendence Theory Explained. Retrieved from https://healthresearchfunding.org/gerotranscendence-theory-explained/

Open Education Sociology Dictionary. (n.d.). Gerotranscendence. Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/gerotranscendence/

Reason & meaning. (2017). Summary of Lars Tornstam on Gerotranscendence. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/08/07/summary-of-lars-tornstam-on-gerotranscendence/

Sloww. (n.d.). What is Gerotranscendence? (& Can it Happen Younger?). Retrieved from https://www.sloww.co/gerotranscendence/

Springer. (2022). Religious factors and gerotranscendence in later life: A scope review. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-022-02706-x

Summary of Lars Tornstam on Gerotranscendence. (2017). Retrieved from https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/08/07/summary-of-lars-tornstam-on-gerotranscendence/

The Social Gerontology Group. (n.d.). Department of Sociology – Uppsala University. Retrieved from https://www.soc.uu.se/research/research-groups/Welfare/the-social-gerontology-group/

Tornstam, L. (2005). Gerotranscendence: A developmental theory of positive aging. Springer Publishing Company.

Tornstam, L. (2017). Summary of Lars Tornstam on Gerotranscendence. Reason and meaning. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/08/07/summary-of-lars-tornstam-on-gerotranscendence/

Tornstam, L. (2022). Religious factors and gerotranscendence in later life: A scope review. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-022-02706-x

Tornstam, L. (2005). A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging. Springer Publishing Company.

Tornstam, L. (2011). Maturing into gerotranscendence. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 43(2), 166ā€“180.

Tornstam, L. (2005). Gerotranscendence: A theoretical and empirical exploration. In M.L. Johnson (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of age and ageing (pp. 338-344). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zhang, Y., Liu, X., Zhang, J., & Liang, J. (2022). Religious factors and gerotranscendence in later life: A scope review. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-022-02706-x

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