Midlife and beyond: A crossroads of purpose
The causes aren’t too surprising. Two of the biggest sources of purpose for adults, work and family, take a major hit when we retire and when kids leave home. Suddenly, we wake up to days that aren’t structured by meetings and deadlines, by soccer games and homework help. It can feel like the things that defined us—our very identity—are slipping away. On top of all that, niggling health problems can make it physically harder to stay involved with activities and people that might keep us feeling engaged.
Gerontologist and AgeWave founder Ken Dychtwald sees a pattern where society doesn’t recognize the value and wisdom of older people, writing them off as feeble or irrelevant, and elders don’t always put in the work to learn new technology and connect with younger people. While society might be telling them to relax and enjoy their golden years, he says, many older adults just feel adrift.
Not everyone has this experience, of course. People who have strong relationships and a positive attitude toward aging tend to fare better. In one study, researchers interviewed people ages 61-70 and identified the ones who were able to maintain or increase their sense of purpose over the decade. Those individuals often turned their efforts inward to become better human beings, learning new skills, or tackling long-held emotional struggles. As Damon explains, the pause of retirement and an empty nest can be an invitation to introspection, in ways that weren’t possible in our chaotic midlives, and a reconnection with the things that truly matter.
John Leland, a New York Times reporter, had the opportunity to follow six New Yorkers over 85 for a year and get an intimate glimpse into their lives. They became his friends, he says, and their stories were featured in his book about happiness. He observes that the elders who held on to a sense of purpose thrived because of their flexibility. They rolled with the punches as their lives changed and evolved, and they remained open to new experiences. “Those who are able to understand their roles as constantly changing, constantly evolving—it’s a story that they’re still writing—are able to deal with the ups and downs that we all confront better than people who see themselves as fixed in one point,” he says.
In many ways, the pursuit of purpose as an older adult looks a lot like it does for teens. Marc Freedman, founder of the generation-connecting organization Encore.org, sees this parallel, too: Instead of internships, Encore.org offers fellowships where older people spend up to a year working in nonprofits, foundations, and other social sector organizations. The experience is designed to help them find an “encore career,” a purposeful activity that serves the greater good and contributes to the world they’ll leave behind.
Gary Maxworthy, who won Encore.org’s Purpose Prize in 2007, was 56 when his wife died from cancer. After more than three decades in food distribution, he wanted to give back. He started volunteering at a food bank, where he quickly noticed a big problem and a big opportunity: Growers were having to send lots of “imperfect” produce to landfills because they couldn’t sell it, and accepting fresh produce was too difficult for food banks. He created Farm to Family to solve that problem and ensure that fresh fruit and vegetables make it to families in need.
Other Encore.org fellows include retired doctors caring for underserved patients and retired tech company executives helping to improve online government services. Meanwhile, organizations like Stanford’s Advanced Leadership Institute and the Modern Elder Academy offer college-like experiences for older adults looking for a fresh start.
In Freedman’s experience, very few of us will wake up one day with a totally new purpose in life. Instead, he observes people draw on the skills, knowledge, and values they’ve cultivated over a lifetime to start a new chapter. That’s good news because it means the building blocks of purpose are already within us when we reach maturity.
The practice of purpose
Years ago, Bronk interviewed young people about their sense of purpose, hoping to gain some insight into how it developed. Afterward, she was surprised to hear how much the participants enjoyed the conversation. In fact, she and her team discovered that talking with young people about the things that mattered to them actually increased their sense of purpose in life—an outcome the researchers hadn’t even been looking for. That’s partly why Bronk believes, deep down, that everyone has a purpose, even if they don’t realize it or know what it is yet.
“We all have things that we care about, we all have special talents that we can apply to make a meaningful difference in the world around us,” she says. Other researchers agree that you can have a sense of purpose even if you can’t write it down in a simple sentence: “My purpose is…”
As we’ve seen, we can have multiple purposes that rise and fall in importance over our lifetime, as schedules are juggled and priorities shift. When we face transitions, whether it’s changing careers, going through divorce or illness, or hitting a milestone birthday, we may be prompted to slow down, reflect, and reprioritize.
In other words, purpose is a constant practice—which is something Leland took away from his time with New York’s “oldest old.”
“They believed that purpose was something you created, not something you sought, and it would be something that you have to keep creating,” reflects Leland. “I think they would say that happiness would be the same thing. It’s something that you have within you, and you have to tap it and recognize it and cultivate it rather than waiting for it to come your way.”