Purpose and Health
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.
But 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. 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. The same researchers observed that older adults with a sense of purpose were more likely to have close friendships, enjoy the arts, practice healthy habits, and experience less chronic pain and illness. 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 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 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. Expressing your identity through art or actions is a way to be happy, a way to affirm who you are, and a way to find purpose.
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