The New Grief

How families find renewal through loss.

The Key to Happiness After 50: Create Your Own Epiphany

Playing Life's Second Half: From Success to Significance

 

If you want to discover a path for yourself as you approach the so-called "golden years," begin by asking yourself the question: Why Am I Here? Even better, take some time to contemplate the following pair of questions:

Why Am I Here? Versus What Do I Want?

Chances are, if you are like most people your age, you have spent the first half or more of your life in pursuit of answers to the second question. Getting what you want, in short, is what motivated you for a long time. It is, after all, what we are programmed to do. It is what the vast and sophisticated business of advertising and marketing is all about. 

Motivation: External versus Internal

Motivation is a tricky business. Most often, when we are casting about for something to motivate us, we set goals: We decide what it is we want, and how we are going to get it. We then pursue things like an education, which will lead to a better job, which will then lead in time to the house, car, vacation, and so on that we want. When we live life in this way we are living for what we want. In effect we are basing our motivation on this external factor of getting what we want.

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The Great Recession that this country (indeed, the whole world) continues to grapple with has put a dent in many people's lifestyles. Some have suffered catastrophic losses; others have weather the storm but may have had to trim their lifestyles and lower their expectations. Quite a few in the 50-plus crowd find themselves having their careers shortened by five or ten years.

From Success to Significance

As traumatic as the economic crisis may be for many post 50 men and women, it also coincides with what has historically marked a major (and normal) life transition. Having to confront limited financial means may actually help some people make this transition and take a major leap in terms of what motivated them. They can, in short, move from a motivation and lifestyle based on what they want to one that is based on why they are here. In doing so they are changing the basic nature of what motivates them. The question "Why Am I Here?" forces us to look inside ourselves in order to find a direction. It is an internally based motivation.

Many successful men and women have made the shift in what motivates them, going from pursuing objective success to seeking a life of significance. Even the once notorious "robber barons," such as John D. Rockefeller, changed direction, devoting himself to establishing national parks, universities, and foundations instead of raw material success. 

Not that we are all Rockefellers—but the principle of moving from the pursuit of success to the pursuit of significance remains the same for all of us, regardless of our financial means. Kathy, for example, was let go from a senior position in the human resources division of a large corporation following a merger that led to downsizing. This was several years earlier than she'd planned on retiring. Kathy and her husband, Jim, owned their home, but had planned on major renovations that now had to be put on hold. In addition, they would probably have to forego the condominium in Florida they'd been thinking of buying and using as a family vacation place.

Was Kathy upset, even a bit depressed, by this turn of events? Certainly. Yet she had to admit that for the past couple of years she'd been mulling over the idea of doing daycare for her two young grandchildren—one from each of her grown daughters. Kathy herself had loved being a full-time mother until her daughters were able to attend school full-time. She knew how much it cost her daughters and their own husbands, all of whom had demanding full-time jobs. Finally, though it was only a gut feeling, Kathy believed in her heart that being looked after in a home by a family member was better for young children than conventional daycare. 

Kathy still had her management and human resources specialist skills. But after several long talks with Jim and their daughters she opted not to look for another job right now. Instead, their home became the daycare center for the grandchildren. Kathy's daughters contributed enough to cover food and furnishings, plus a small "allowance" for Kathy (after all, caretakers should be compensated something for their work, even if they volunteer), but even with that the kids saved a bundle.

Kathy is only one example of someone who faced a crisis and, instead of being frozen or slipping into depression, saw in it an opportunity—and seized it. Some of the material things that had motivated her and Jim had to be let go. But that was okay with them. As Kathy explained it to me, "the condo in Florida, like a new kitchen, were external things that I used to keep me working. What I wanted in my heart, though, was to go back to what was the most fulfilling part of my life—caring for children." She had, in other words, found an internal basis for motivation, and with that step moved from a life based on what she wanted to what made her fulfilled. This is not an argument for women staying at home; rather, it is an example of how important meaning is to personal fulfillment.

Create Your Own Epiphany

People sometimes think of an "epiphany" as some magical insight that strikes us like a lightning bolt. While it is true that an epiphany typically alters the course of a person's life, most epiphanies are more like the one that helped Kathy change course. Epiphanies, moreover, can be "facilitated." It is not necessary to sit on a rock, or climb a mountain, to experience a life-altering epiphany. It can be as simple as taking the time to as yourself: Why Am I Here? as opposed to What Do I Want? And there is no better time to do that than when you are fifty and older.

To learn more about facilitating epiphanies, read Six Questions that Can Change Your Life: Dramatically, Completely, Forever or visit www.josephnowinski.com.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is the supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

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