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Feeling Lost in Retirement? How to Find a Purpose

April 22, 2019 

Don...you need to have this.

Patrick Hill
Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Patrick Hill’s research focuses on understanding how dispositional traits predict and shape trajectories of healthy aging. Hill’s current research is interested in how individuals explore options for and ultimately commit to a purpose for life, and how having a sense of purpose predicts important life outcomes.

When you ask people to name something that they could do to promote a longer life, most say things like eating healthy, exercising, and sleeping better. Not many people would mention having a sense of purpose in life. However, it’s an underrated factor for living longer and better. So how do you know if you have one? And if you don’t, how do you get one?


What We’ll Cover:

  1. What does it mean to have a purpose in life?
  2. Why finding a purpose may be an issue for older adults
  3. Three ways you can find a purpose


First, What Does it Mean to Have a Purpose in Life

A purpose in life can be thought of as a broad, overarching life aim that helps give one a sense of direction. Researchers have described a purpose as being similar to a compass or lighthouse that guides individuals through life.1 For many, it can be difficult to articulate exactly what their purpose is. Even if that’s the case, you may still feel you’re purposeful and guided through life. Research has shown having this sense of purpose has important benefits.2

You might still be wondering if you have a sense of purpose in your own life. If so, start by asking yourself three simple questions:

  1. Do you feel you have a direction in life?
  2. Do you have worthwhile activities to engage in every day?
  3. Do you have a goal that gives your life meaning?


Second, Why Finding a Purpose May Be an Issue for Older Adults

If you feel you’re lacking on these fronts, you’re not alone, particularly in older adulthood. Older adults may be at risk for a decline in purposefulness. One reason may be that this period is associated with the loss or change of several roles that have helped define your daily life, like being an employee, spouse, parent, or active community member. For instance, in our research on retirement, older adults often maintained their sense of purpose when they continued working, but those who had retired showed significant declines.3

We even hear older adults say that they have “outgrown” the need for a purposeful life; that having goals and being active are only for younger people. This is a common misconception. As will be discussed, reconnecting with roles that previously gave your life direction, in your community and elsewhere, or finding new roles can be a route to feeling more purposeful.


Third, Three Ways to Find a Purpose

With life expectancies around the world continuing to increase, we are living longer than ever post-retirement. Therefore, more adults may be searching for direction in the decades after retirement. Our Purpose, Aging, Transitions, and Health Lab works to help people find their purpose in life, and participants in our studies often mention they have found a purpose through three main methods:4

  1. Explore different goals, and try new things: This can involve taking a class, learning a new skill, or volunteering in your community. For example, more older adults have been enrolling in university or college courses following retirement, which gives them opportunities to learn new skills and knowledge that could direct their next purposeful pursuit.
  2. Reach out to others who seem purposeful: Try attending community events where inspiring older adults are speaking, or read memoirs by influential people. By hearing and reading their stories, individuals can get ideas about how those individuals found their direction in life.
  3. Reflect upon the major events of your life: Think about what made them meaningful. Was the event something that influenced your values, or inspired you to do something different with your life? For instance, some individuals report finding a new purpose in life after a major health issue, or after helping someone else deal with a health concern, because it helped them understand what really mattered to them.

It’s worth noting that a purposeful life can take different forms. For example, a retired teacher may find purpose by volunteering at a school once a week, “teaching” their grandchildren, or working part-time as a teaching assistant or substitute teacher. Instead of thinking of retirement as the “end” of a purposeful life, it can be an opportunity to find new ways to follow your life goals, or to find new goals to pursue.


Do I Really Need a Purpose?

Some retirees just want to relax and not be as engaged as they once were. They feel that’s the point of retirement—to get a break and not have to worry about having obligations. But a growing number of retirees aren’t satisfied with a life of leisure. They miss the challenges and sense of accomplishment that work provided. If that’s you, consider that living a purposeful life can take a different form in retirement. For example, a retired teacher may find purpose by volunteering at the school once a week, spending time “teaching” their grandchildren, or working part-time as a teaching assistant or substitute teacher.


Having a Purpose May Help You Live Longer, But It Also Has Benefits Now

Research shows that feeling purposeful can consistently predict longer lives across different countries and age groups.5 One reason for this is that people in the study with a sense of purpose experienced later risk for major illnesses, like cardiovascular disease and stroke.6 These findings likely occur in part because people who have a sense of purpose tend to have healthier lifestyle habits.7 In addition, purposeful individuals seem to have better connections with their family8 and their romantic partners.9


Next Steps

  1. Ask yourself these questions to determine your sense of purpose in life:
    • Do you feel you have a direction in life?
    • Do you have worthwhile activities to engage in every day?
    • Do you have aims that give your life purpose?
  2. If you feel like you’re lacking a purpose, consider trying something new, including the activities mentioned above
  3. Reach out to family and friends to get advice on what they do to feel purposeful


1How Many Colleges and Universities Do We Really Need? The Washington Post, 7/20/15. Most recent data available.

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