For most people, the idea of “getting older” often doesn’t resonate until we reach a certain decade, experience a health crisis, or finally reach retirement. We have expectations of what “life’s third act”-as Jane Fonda refers to it- will look like, and sometimes, that vision unexpectedly changes. When we hit mid-life, typically the 5th decade of life, in addition to the importance of financial planning, an exercise in exploring a sense of lifelong purpose can add quality to those long term plans, and bring about excitement and healthy anticipation about the later years of life.
Purposeful living is something many of us take for granted.
Most of us wake up every day with plans to go to school, work, activities with kids or friends, planning the next family party or social get together. As purpose and meaning change with life stages, we can become vulnerable to fewer connections and increase our risk for loneliness and isolation. Studies have shown that isolation increases the risk of mental and physical illnesses. In fact, the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the AARP Foundation.
What can you do to maintain purpose and enjoy all stages of life?
1. Set goals. My grandmother had a pillow on her chair that read “I’m up and dressed, what else do you want?” We always got a chuckle out of it, and even though simple, she used it as a means to maintain purpose every day. Write your goals down, and stick to a plan. Start small and build from there. If it’s helpful, imagine building a staircase that allows you to move “up” rather than “down” with all of life’s changes.
2. Engage with others. Having time on your hands means the freedom to choose what you want to do and when to do it. Staying connected to your community is a sure fire way to maintain a sense of purpose. Sign up for a class, volunteer, visit a museum, or offer to babysit the grandkids. Stay engaged to stay healthy.
3. Maintain relationships. A 70 year study from Harvard explored what creates a sense of happiness over a lifetime and across social and economic classes. They concluded that the ability to maintain relationships with others is the biggest predictor to quality of life in our later decades. Consider examining the current relationships you have in your life and evaluate the purpose they serve and the mutual benefit gained. Don’t be afraid to be true to yourself and let go of relationships that no longer contribute to your sense of purpose and happiness.
4. Do a life review. Take out a piece of paper and create a timeline of your life. Reflect on all that has happened and what brought you purpose and meaning in years past, or at present. Making plans to continue things you currently enjoy or “upcycling” past interests or events can point you in the right direction to maintaining or gaining a sense of purpose.
5. Ask for help. If you find you’re having difficulty discovering purpose, ASK! We all need new perspective from time to time, no matter our age. Seek out someone you trust or a professional who will walk with you on your journey so you can continue building the road to your best life.
Simple ideas? Yes.
Easy? Not always, but sometimes having a starting point is the nudge we need to get motivated toward positive change.
Written by: Anne McDonald, MSW, LICSW
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