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From Cradle to Retirement: The Enduring Need to Be Useful

Being useful helps us feel like we matter.

Key points

  • Nurturing usefulness from a young age is imporant.
  • Embrace meaningful engagements in retirement.
  • We need to feel useful from toddlerhood through adulthood.

As we wend our way from toddlerhood to older adulthood, we have a desire to be useful. It's a fundamental aspect of human experience that evolves as we traverse different stages of life. From toddler years, when little ones eagerly mimic their parents in an effort to be helpful, to the later years, when adults find fulfillment in providing for their families or contributing to their communities, the need to feel useful runs deep.

Toddlers are not merely playing make-believe when they attempt to assist parents with chores or activities; they seek validation and purpose through usefulness. The drive to feel useful is vital for their development, fostering confidence and autonomy as they grow. During adolescence, the urge for usefulness can surface through academic accomplishments or extracurricular activities, indicating their adolescent's value and significance to themselves and others.

Adults find meaning and fulfillment in being of service to others. Young adulthood is fraught with the quest for identity and purpose. Feeling useful and needed helps young adults navigate this pivotal phase, anchoring them as they explore their place in the world (Fuligni, 2021). Middle age is a time when adults need their usefulness to be reflected in generative or outward-focused activities, such as caregiving, volunteering, or mentoring others.

As we age, mattering becomes increasingly significant. Feeling useful and needed bolsters our sense of importance to others, a buffer against loneliness and physical decline. Even for individuals grappling with dementia (van Vliet, 2017), the desire to feel useful remains, highlighting the enduring nature of this drive.

Conversely, the absence of feeling useful can profoundly affect well-being. Feelings of worthlessness, depression, and anxiety may take root, leading to harmful coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse or self-harm. The importance of fostering a sense of usefulness throughout life cannot be overstated.

For some individuals, retirement can bring about loss of a sense of purpose and onset of feeling useless. The importance of engaging in activities that provide a sense of usefulness and fulfillment is key to maintaining well-being. Whether pursuing personal projects driven by intrinsic motivation, such as a hobby, or engaging in mentorship, finding avenues to contribute and feel useful can imbue life with purpose.

The pursuit of usefulness is a fundamental aspect of the human experience woven into the fabric of our lives from early childhood to older adulthood. It's a journey marked by moments of fulfillment, significance, and connection, reminding us of our inherent capacity to make a difference in the world around us.

Three Takeaways:

  • Nurturing usefulness from a young age: Recognize and encourage children's desire to be helpful. This fosters confidence and autonomy. Engaging them in age-appropriate tasks not only aids their development but also instills a sense of purpose and value from early on.
  • Continuing to find purpose in adulthood: Whether through caregiving, volunteering, or pursuing personal passions, finding avenues to serve others enriches lives and provides a sense of fulfillment.
  • Embracing meaningful engagement in retirement: Retirement offers an opportunity to reassess how to define usefulness and purpose. Actively seeking out activities that provide a sense of contribution and relevance can enhance overall well-being in this phase of life.


Fuligni, A. J., Smola, X. A., & Al Salek, S. (2022). Feeling Needed and Useful during the Transition to Young Adulthood. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 32(3), 1259–1266.

van Vliet, D., Persoon, A., Bakker, C., Koopmans, R. T. C. M., de Vugt, M. E., Bielderman, A., & Gerritsen, D. L. (2017). Feeling useful and engaged in daily life: exploring the experiences of people with young-onset dementia. International Psychogeriatrics, 29(11), 1889–1898.

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