Purpose and Meaning as We Age

Purpose is that added spice in life that helps bridge the gaps of boredom, meaninglessness, empty repetition, and pain. Finding purpose at any age can be a challenging task.  One of the most frequent refrains I hear from my patients is that they no longer have purpose in their lives.  Many are coming to see me because they are experiencing sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of direction.  It is obvious to me that they are struggling with their identity, their usefulness, and context for who they are now.

Defining Purpose

Purpose is what brings meaning to what you do, gives you a sense of accomplishment in developing mastery or skill, and sustains you in challenging times.  Purpose is informed by your beliefs, values, and habits.  It can slowly change over time or shift in an instant.  It may consist of step-by-step instructions with an attainable goal at the end, or it may be a feeling that is difficult to put into words.  It can be shared or it can be singular.

Purpose changes over the lifespan.  I am sure you can think of a time when you were younger and imagined yourself as a grownup.  For many of us, having children gave us a sense of purpose.  Recognizing that I was responsible for someone other than myself and that I was in charge of their care and safety was a powerful and potent motivator.

purpose2           Or maybe you felt a calling, and either by a direct route, or by circumnavigating your universe, and you came to understand that there is intention, direction, and meaning in not just what you do, but who you are in doing it.

Discovering who you are meant to be isn’t always fun.  Often people discover purpose and meaning because of negative experiences. Maybe you have had to work through dark legacies of trauma arising within your family or occurring in the environment you grew up in that resulted in your having a sense of purpose to never repeat such things again.

These experiences are supported by our cultural beliefs, especially in our younger years.  Because there isn’t a clear demarcation between “doing” and “being”, there is more emphasis put on the doing.  So when your “doing years” are done, you may find yourself on the sidelines wondering what is it that you are supposed to do now?

So Now What?

Much of what I do in therapy is about uncovering beliefs that have gone unchallenged for a lifetime.  Here are some that might resonate with you:

  • “Now that I’m retired, I have nothing to do.”
  • “My kids are grown. They don’t need me anymore.”
  • “When I was working, I had a reason to get up in the morning.”
  • “My mind doesn’t work the way it used to. I’m losing it.”

These beliefs are rooted in our Puritan work ethic.  While that ethic has a lot of things going for it, it is primarily skewed toward the “doing” aspect of purpose.  Uncovering the “being” elements can be very rewarding.  For example, these statements can be reframed to read:

  • “Now that I’m retired, I need to learn new ways of filling my day.”
  • “Now that my kids are grown, I can expand my definition of “family” to include others who might need me to love and support them.”
  • “When I was working, I developed habits that got me going. I need to develop new habits that will motivate me now.”
  • “I notice that I pay attention to different things now, and sometimes I find myself daydreaming and not focused at all.”

Ways of Finding Purpose as We Age

We can find purpose and meaning in quieter ways as we age.  Meditation, yoga, or participation in a group spiritual practice that draws on traditions that are thousands of years old are wonderful ways to connect.  In coming together to learn and experience these teachings, you may experience clarity and feelings of belonging to something greater than just yourself.  In practicing alone, you may feel connected in a wholly different way to your mind, body, and spirit.

Or maybe you identify with a cause and your commitment to doing something for others gives you a sense of purpose.  Working together with others reinforces our value as an individual and builds skills not just in achieving, but in collaborating.

You may find yourself pursuing creative avenues such as painting, writing, dance, or music.  These areas of self expression often result in finding purpose and meaning in the process of creating.  It is less about the actual product than the process.

dancePurpose has Energy

Purpose is very much like a stream of water making its way to the ocean.  It may start small, encounter all kinds of obstacles, yet it persists and, when joined by other streams turns into a creek, then a mighty river, and finally empties into the ocean.

When your sense of purpose “dries up” or becomes “dammed”, you chafe because there is no direction, no action.  When you have to work around barriers, you get creative and find ways that may seem to take you backward or go in a wide arc but inevitably take you closer to your goal or end point.  When others partner with you because they share the same sense of purpose or at least are in harmony with what you are doing, the energy is magnified and the burden lessened.

Purpose is Kinetic

When purpose runs unobstructed, it can seem overwhelming.  You may shrink from the responsibility and discipline it demands of you.  On the other hand, when it fades or no longer excites you, you may think of starting over somewhere else, quitting, or even giving up altogether.

Your purpose in life may not be evident to you.  You may feel that you have lost all sense of meaning and have nothing left to live for.  Or you may just be finding the courage to throw off the bonds of externally imposed expectations and beginning to seek out what makes you feel alive. Give yourself permission to “know what you know” and then gently, persistently, and with humility, let your purpose reveal itself.

Thanks for reading!

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