9 Ways to Find Your Purpose As You Age
Aging has its challenges, but meaningful goals lead to health and happiness.
Posted Feb 02, 2020
In general, surveys show that older people are happier people. But getting older is not a bed of roses, either. Eventually, the losses pile up. Friends, family members, or partners may die. You may acquire one or more chronic illnesses or become disabled. You may feel that your choices are narrowing.
Fortunately, there are still ways to find meaning in your life despite these losses. “Fortunately,” because recent research reveals that living with a sense of purpose—acting in accord with your most cherished values and goals— has numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. For example, feeling that you have a purpose decreases your chance of premature death, according to a study of almost 7000 adults between the ages of 51 and 61. Amazingly, those without a sense of purpose were almost twice as likely to die in the four years of the study.
Other studies show that a sense of purpose promotes healthy behaviors and is associated with better physical and mental health outcomes. For example, a 2019 study by a team of British researchers found that a sense of purpose also promoted happiness and a sense of well-being among adults 50- 90. A recent study of seniors in a retirement community suggests that a sense of purpose might even alleviate loneliness.
According to this NPR article, it doesn’t matter what your purpose is as long as you have one. But where do you look to find your unique purpose as you age?
Nine Paths to Purpose
For part of the answer, I returned to a favorite book: Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. In this short, powerful book, Frankl describes his daily experiences and observations while a prisoner in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. There he developed his beliefs about what can sustain the desire to live even under the most inhumane and desperate circumstances.
Frankl observed that those inmates who had a sense of purpose were more likely to survive the degrading conditions of the camp. While the rigors of aging in no way compare to life in a concentration camp, they have in common the need to find meaningful goals when life gets rough.
Below are nine paths to purpose that can be helpful to anyone at any age, but they are especially relevant to older adults. I've drawn on Frankl's work for #1, #2, and #9. The ninth path may not strike you as particularly cheerful, but I think you’ll find it bracing and even inspiring in its own way. By the way, you don't have to choose just one path. You might find yourself following each of the nine paths in turn, even in just one day.
1. Work mission.
Some older adults are able to continue the paid work they love to do. Their motto is: "Never retire." Other active older adults use retirement as an opportunity to try out a second career. Still, others find employment where they can because earning an income is either necessary or a source of independence and pride. Many older adults find meaning in unpaid work such as volunteer work, personal projects, or home improvement.
One reason Frankl was motivated to survive the daily torment of the camps was because of a book he wanted to finish. Although he was forced to relinquish his manuscript when he entered the camp, he wrote his key ideas on scraps of paper and stuffed them in his pockets. After his liberation from the camps, he wrote that book and many others.
If you are no longer motivated by traditional work goals, however, you could find your particular purpose in one of the motivators below.
2. Love and friendship.
Finding meaning in the love of another person is an inspiring motivator. For example, Frankl was able to survive the camps in part by imagining a future reunion with his wife. Many older people find meaning in relationships with spouses, friends, children, and grandchildren and in taking care of beloved others.
3. Compassion for others.
Compassion and concern for others may protect against feelings of meaninglessness, accord to this study. As one senior said, "If you're feeling lonely, then go out and do something for somebody else.” Even making brief connections with relative strangers—acknowledging their presence, wishing them a good day, giving a compliment—can be a source both of meaning and happiness. Listening to someone with an open mind, reaching out to someone who may be lonely, or sending a card can provide good cheer to someone who is down in the dumps.
4. Small joys and pleasures.
But what if you don’t have some lofty-sounding “purpose project” in your life? Just learning to appreciate small pleasures is a habit worth cultivating. Noticing a bird or plant outside your window, having a warming cup of coffee, exchanging hugs—these tiny moments when noticed and absorbed provide a source of satisfaction to both body and brain.
According to the "Bold School" newsletter of the Washington Post, researchers have studied a population in Okinawa, Japan, where people live longer than anywhere in the world. Researchers attributed this longevity to the practice of “ikigai:” "This 'sense of a life worth living' includes looking for joy in small things, being present and creating a harmonious atmosphere."
5. Staying strong and healthy.
You won’t be able to accomplish much if you lack energy and strength. And just staying strong to perform the normal activities of daily living is an accomplishment in itself, because it means that you can still be independent. Take walks, go to the gym, get a personal trainer, eat right--you know what to do!
6. Creative projects and play.
Creative activities, humor, and play of all sorts can provide a sense of purpose for many people. Hobbies, sports, and experiences such as art, travel, music, nature, reading, and culture can touch us deeply and enlarge our capacity for empathy. They may also reduce symptoms of chronic pain and worry by making life more enjoyable, according to PT blogger David Hanscom here. Expressing your identity through art is a way to be happy, a way to affirm who you are, and a way to find purpose. Creative activities may also help you stay youthful. In the words of 93-year-old artist Betye Saar, "...the creative part of me is forever young."
7. Contributing to the repair and improvement of the world — or at least your corner of it.
Making a contribution to your society is a wonderful way to find a purpose greater than yourself. There are an infinite number of ways to do this. I have several friends who write letters-to-the-editor on a regular basis. Other people take up a social justice cause that is meaningful to them. Some people find a unique niche--for example, the skillful person whose mission is to help with the DIY projects of hapless neighbors and friends.
8. Leaving a legacy.
By a "legacy" I mean writing a will to ensure the smooth passage of your assets to your children or other heirs. But I also mean contributing to your family or to the world in many of the ways listed above. Answering the question, "What kind of gifts do I want to leave to the world before I die?" may even be an effective way to guide you toward your current purpose.
9. Bearing suffering with grace, courage, and dignity.
Counter-intuitive as it may sound, meeting the challenges of aging with acceptance and courage might become a mission in itself. Frankl’s insight that enduring suffering could provide purpose in life was a mind-opener for me. He writes, for example, of life in the camps, that, "the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.” (Frankl emphasizes that suffering is not necessary to find meaning, only that meaning is possible in spite of suffering.)
How could you apply Frankl’s insight to your life? You might decide to :
- Be a good role model for your children and others even when your life is painful.
- Focus on gratitude — what you do have rather than what you don't.
- Demonstrate courage by accepting what you cannot change.
I am not sure I will be able to do any of these things, but I think the awareness that I have a choice about how to deal with pain and suffering as I age will be helpful in itself. It is a revelation to realize that learning to cope with a tough situation creatively can become a source of meaning in itself.
The experiences of aging — in fact, of life in general — can be bitter, sweet, tender, or tough. How will you react to them? You might find it useful to remember these words of Frankl's, summing up his view of human nature as he experienced it in the camps: "...in the final analysis, it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone." What kind of person do you want to be as you age? Can you make an "inner decision" that will guide you?
© Meg Selig, 2020. For permissions, contact me here.
Note: I describe my particular aging challenges in this blog.
Gordon, M. “What’s Your Purpose? Finding a Sense of Meaning in Life is Linked to Health." NPR, 2019.
Whitbourne, S.K. “The Purposeful Life is Healthy and Wise.” psychologytoday.com, 2019.
Frankl, V.E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 105. (First published in English in 1959), pps. 66, 83, 105, 111, 113.