I have just read a great article about “How Purpose Changes Across Your Lifetime”. Society places so much pressure upon us all to ‘find our purpose’ in order to lead a happy and fulfilled life. The article discusses how this is particularly true for young people, and how there can be disappointment in middle age if we feel we haven’t found our true purpose in life. For many seniors, once their work career and family raising are over it can be even more difficult to feel a sense of purpose.
Research shows that having a sense of direction does contribute towards better health and satisfaction. The article asserts, however, that purpose is ‘not a destination’ but rather a journey through life and we can find many different kinds of purpose at each stage of that journey. Purpose does not have to be huge and earth-moving, ordinary parts of existence can give us a sense of meaning and satisfaction. In face we don’t even ‘find’ purpose – we understand what is important to us, what kind of person we want to be, and cultivate it through deliberate reflection and action.
Seniors who have maintained a sense of meaning in later life have learned that this comes from being flexible, knowing that each age transition may necessitate change in themselves to feel a new purpose. They understand that their story is being written until the very end. It is not fixed. The ‘good news’ is that our past experiences and skills are the building blocks that are within us to draw upon as we age. “Very few of us will wake up one day with a totally new purpose in life. Instead, people draw on the skills, knowledge, and values they’ve cultivated over a lifetime to start a new chapter”. One researcher working with people aged 61-70 found that the ones who were able to maintain or increase their sense of purpose over the decade often turned their efforts inward to become better human beings, learning new skills or tackling long-held emotional struggles. But sense of purpose can come from a myriad of actions – it may also come from caring for a loved one.
Purpose, then, is a journey and a constant practice which means it’s accessible at any age, if we’re willing to explore what matters to us and what kind of person we want to be—and act to become that person. It is “a project that endures across the lifespan.” Which is exactly what interviews with New York’s “oldest old” in another piece of research showed. “They believed that purpose was something you created, not something you sought, and it would be something that you have to keep creating. 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.”