Finding Purpose in Later Life
By providing us with a healthy orientation to the future, a sense of purpose increases wellbeing – especially in later life.
Purpose Increases Health in Later Life
Retirement age is often experienced as a time of loss. Not only of the opportunities of youth, but also of a sense of purpose. And if purpose declines, so too does health and wellbeing. This is because of the strong correlation between having a purpose in life and the increased will to live. This is one important finding to come out of a 20-year study, Midlife in the United States (MIDUS), conducted at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin. Lead researcher Dr. Carol Ryff, and Stacey Schaefer, who managed the neuroscience portion of the study, found that regardless of age or health status, people aged 20 to 70 who have a purpose in life are less likely to die within 10 years. Having purpose makes it easier for people to recover from negative life events, conferring a protective quality that makes them more resilient to stress. Similarly, in the study “Purpose in Life as a Psychosocial Resource in Healthy Aging,” researchers Nia Fogelman and Dr. Turhan Canli found that cortisol – an indicator of stress found in the blood – decreases as purpose in life increases. The same study indicated that having a strong sense of purpose is associated with reduced mortality and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or having a heart attack.
Unlike other life phases that are defined by schooling, marriage, raising a family, or earning a living, later life is relatively undefined. Except, of course, by investment advisors who would have everyone financially secure and eager to retire by 55, finally free to enjoy life on the golf course or aboard a cruise ship. As this phase lacks definition, there is a general assumption that purpose in life automatically declines after an individual has reached the pinnacle of their career. Rather than seeing this lack of definition around purpose in older age as a problem to be solved, we should recognize that this lack of expectation is what makes later life an ideal time to redefine individual purpose beyond purse strings and the nine-to-five grind.
Purpose Provides Direction
Part of the reason purpose is healthy is because it motivates people and helps them organize their behavior in pursuit of achieving goals. For example, if a person thinks the purpose of work is to apply and grow their skills, or to make a meaningful contribution, they will approach their work differently than they would if they thought its purpose was “just” to pay the bills. People do many things in life randomly or to fulfill some sort of obligation – but purposeful work is something done with intent or even enthusiasm. There has been a great amount of emphasis placed on the idea that millennials value purposeful work more than other generations. However, one could argue that purpose is actually something that becomes more important the older an individual gets. Having purpose helps people shape their lives – a good thing regardless of age. But a sense of purpose may be especially helpful as people age and begin to feel the need to conserve their energy for the things they value most, including spending time reflecting on their lives or making a meaningful contribution.
Purpose Orients People to the Future
The erosion of stable jobs and pensions in recent years has created a sense of uncertainty around work – especially for those who were taught that hard work today means stability tomorrow. For many, this is a sad and distressing new reality. The worry over the loss of stable work parallels fears over the loss of youth: It makes people fearful of the future. So, how can these individuals reorient themselves to the future in a more positive way? Beginning a new journey, such as starting a new job, can be difficult regardless of one’s age, as branching out requires more intentional effort than sticking to the status quo does. It also requires one to look forward with an attitude of trust, rather than fearing the unknown. Becoming more open to change requires people to slow down or step aside from the relentless pressures of passing time – something that should, in theory, be easier for people later in life when they aren’t in such a hurry. By taking this time to embrace and connect with the future, an older individual may develop a renewed sense of purpose. In doing so, they may discover that they’re no longer so stressed out about the future.
Launching a second “encore” career, starting a new business, or making the decision to mentor younger employees are just a few ways that those close to retirement can open themselves to the future and develop a renewed sense of purpose. In the US, self-employment among those of retirement age is rising, with 4.5 million Americans aged 50-70 engaged in an encore career and another 31 million wishing they had one. Obviously, there are many people who will need to continue working past the traditional retirement age out of financial necessity; however, for those who have the freedom to start a new career or move to a new place, redefining their purpose could help them link the present with the future during what is typically an unstable time of transition. Older individuals may also find an increased sense of purpose and health in less formal types of work, such as providing assistance to one’s community in response to a natural disaster or volunteering as a literacy tutor at a local school.
Reclaiming Later Life as a Purpose-Driven Time
Having purpose strengthens the connection individuals have to the future. The opportunity to redefine one’s purpose in later life is a privilege for those lucky enough, financially stable enough, and supported enough by family, friends, and community members. The intention and conscious effort that an individual must dedicate to creating purpose can help order their life and improve their health. Rather than mourning later life as a time of decline in which career and family obligations lessen and health problems accumulate, people should embrace it as a time when they are finally free to do something unexpected and of their own creation: a time of greater purpose, enhanced health, and improved wellbeing.
Knowing that doing work with purpose increases wellbeing, how can businesses help older adults develop and realize their encore careers and passion projects?