Preserving Our Sense of Purpose
Why are we here? What do we owe our communities and future generations? Is it worth it to contemplate our existence?
These may seem like philosophical questions, but they are the type of questions pondered by people with a sense of purpose. Having a sense of purpose is generally defined as having goals, an aim in life. This sense can come from many things—religion, activism, family ties, volunteering or even learning new skills. And research shows that a sense of purpose can even keep us healthier, especially as we get older.
Recent research by the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that people with a higher sense of purpose—a feeling that their lives had a purpose or deeper meaning—were more resilient in the face of challenges like the COVID-19 isolation periods. These people were more likely to practice preventative health measures like hand washing and social distancing, but were less likely than others to feel lonely during the pandemic.
“In the face of adversity, people with a stronger sense of purpose in life tend to be more resilient because they have a clear sense of goals that motivate actions that are aligned with personal values,” says Yoona Kang, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “We felt that the COVID-19 pandemic was an important context to test whether purpose in life relates to individuals’ willingness to engage in behaviors to protect themselves and others.”
A strong sense of purpose has been linked to better mental and physical health and increased longevity. Another study from the Michigan School of Public Health found that adults over the age of 50 who scored highest on a scale that measured “life purpose” were less likely to die than those who scored lower. And on average, the people who reported a higher sense of purpose lived longer.
And yet, it is understandable if older people struggle to maintain a sense of purpose. Perhaps the children have grown and moved away. Retirement may not be the long-sought break that we anticipated. Society is ageist, and stereotypes about older people can affect our self-esteem. Health problems can take our focus off the bigger picture. But it is never too late to seek out purpose, at any age.
Here are some suggestions for ways we can maintain and nurture our sense of purpose as we get older:
Write about your life. Keep a diary or create a family history that you can pass down to the next generation. Reminisce about your life and write down some important stories. Older people are a wealth of wisdom and knowledge, so don’t keep it all to yourself!
Make time for meaningful gatherings with others. Join a faith community or philosophical organization. Online or in-person, there are communities you could join to share your wisdom, ponder life’s purpose, or share your theories about history’s mysteries.
Attend a support group. No matter what you may be challenged with, it is likely that you aren’t the only one. Support groups are a great place to share what you’ve learned with your challenge and receive important empathy and emotional connection.
Express yourself creatively. Sing, dance, paint, or draw! Artistic expression helps us share who we are while enriching the lives of others.
And lastly, volunteer! Many studies have shown that volunteering reduces depression and leads to a longer, healthier life. Some doctors even “prescribe” volunteering to older patients. With a volunteer opportunity for almost anyone, you are sure to find an opportunity that fits your skills and interests.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor.