Studies show that psychological wellbeing and health are closely linked at older ages. The three aspects of psychological wellbeing are evaluative wellbeing (aka life satisfaction), hedonic wellbeing (feelings of happiness, sadness, etc), and eudemonic wellbeing (a sense of purpose and meaning in life). We’re here to help you with the latter.
While a sense of purpose is objective, meaning it varies from person-to-person, it can also change with your values over time. For example, what you valued in your working life, like success or accolades, could be much different from retirement, when you may put more value on relaxation and time with family. Major life events and milestones like retirement almost force you to re-evaluate your sense of purpose.
Finding a sense of purpose is important for seniors because it can actually help you stay healthier longer. That’s right, finding a purpose for living has been shown to extend your life. An illustrative analysis from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) found that eudemonic wellbeing is associated with longer survival. Simply put, people who feel a greater sense of purpose generally live longer than those who lack feelings of purpose. Additionally, higher levels of purpose in life have also been associated with better sleep quality and can reduce the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Your purpose is the reason you do or create things. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning—your raison d’être.
How can we find our reason for living, and more, identify our sense of purpose? In his book Searching for Life’s Purpose & Meaning, Charles Neuf recommends exploring “how and what gives you that feeling of deep connection to yourself and, by extension, to everything else.” Furthermore, Nuef says to “recognize that sense of internal fullness when it occurs and seek it out in all that you do.”
Whether you’re concerned for an older loved one or you’re seeking purpose in your own life, here are seven ways to help seniors produce a sense of purpose.
Engage in a Daily Practice
Having an important daily practice can produce a sense of purpose. Start your day with meditation, yoga, walking, or some other physical exercise. Keep a journal and record the activities or feelings that promote a sense of wellbeing. Gazing inward can help you come up with a mantra, goal, mission, or purpose to live by.
Psychology Today has a handful of questions to ask yourself when trying to determine your sense of purpose, including, “When are you in flow?”. In other words, when are you so immersed in something that you forget to eat? What activities or hobbies make you feel so fully engaged that you feel relaxed, but also challenged?
Author, thinker, and “life enthusiast” Mark Manson points out that “everything sucks some of the time”. This includes life’s purpose—it’s not all sunshine and rainbows simply because you’ve found your “why”. His seven questions dedicated to defining life’s purpose include “What struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate?”. Reflect on this in a journal or during meditation.
Be Needed by Others
According to the University of California Berkeley’s online magazine, Greater Good, “Many seem to believe that purpose arises from your special gifts and sets you apart from other people—but that’s only part of the truth. It also grows from our connection to others, which is why a crisis of purpose is often a symptom of isolation. Once you find your path, you’ll almost certainly find others traveling along with you, hoping to reach the same destination—a community.”
Being needed in itself is a sense of purpose. People like to feel like they are contributing to something larger than themselves. One study found that people who engage in more altruistic behaviors, like volunteering or donating money, tend to have a greater sense of purpose in their lives. Find ways to participate by contributing the knowledge and wisdom you’ve built up over a lifetime. Volunteering, caring for a pet, or tutoring a child not only serves other’s needs but also serves your own need to feel a sense of purpose.
A fundamental aspect of being human is our ability and need to create things. The act of creating helps us find out who we are in the world. Arts, crafts, music, and writing are artistic ways of being creative, but you don’t have to be an artist to be creative. The satisfaction of cooking a delicious meal can be creatively fulfilling. Hobbies like gardening are creative—even if you’re just growing tomatoes, you’re creating a delicious tomato that didn’t exist until you pulled it into being.
Don’t just sit around waiting for the creative bug to bite. Inspiration comes from the actual doing of anything. If you don’t think you can (insert insurmountable task here), break it up into steps and give it a go. You don’t have to finish, you just have to try.
What interests you that you’d like to know more about? What skills do you lack that you wish you could develop? It’s never too late to learn something new! Educate yourself by reading a book, signing up for a class, attending a workshop, or searching online. Some senior centers offer classes and will even provide transportation to them. Learning more about your interests and developing new skills can help point you toward your purpose.
Participate in Fun Activities with Peers
Engaging with others with similar interests can help bring a sense of purpose to life. What activities provide you with a sense of purpose? It could be playing games, baking, dancing, volunteering—you name it. Identify enjoyable activities and engage in them with others. Start a book club, join the gym, start a poker night. Socialization gives you something to look forward to and hanging out with folks who share your values can help you find your sense of purpose.
While routines serve their purpose, ruts do not. Get out of your rut by literally getting out and exploring new places. Seniorguidance.org claims that “traveling and learning about other cultures and people might give you a new sense of purpose. As you go about to other foreign lands and meet all kinds of new people you may find a new purpose daily. You can set your goals to try new foods, learn a new language, become a resident in this other country for a month and learn about their music and culture.”
We’re not saying you have to leave the country on an Eat, Pray, Love mission. Simply going somewhere you’ve never been is a start. You never know where your purpose might be hiding. Switching up your surroundings puts you in a new environment with new people and new ideas.