For many of us, our career has provided a sense of purpose for decades, motivating us to suit up and show up for our employers, clients and coworkers. When what we love to do intersects with what we’re good at—and we’re valued for our contributions—we feel excited and energized, filled with a sense of focus, clarity and achievement.
But what happens to this sense of purpose and its emotional rewards when we retire? What motivates us to get out of bed in the morning then? What makes us revel in and appreciate life every day?
To get some answers, I spoke with Hélène T. Stelian, an iPEC-certified life coach, speaker, author and blogger (Next Act for Women). Through her signature 6-week group program, Discover Your Purpose, Hélène coaches women in transition to help them find joy and fulfillment in the second half of life. In a recent interview, here’s how she responded to these questions:
To start, how do you define “purpose?”
At its simplest, it’s your why. It’s why you’re here—what you’ve been put on this earth to contribute—and why you matter. Which means that there are probably as many definitions of purpose as there are people on earth.
Why is having a purpose so important?
Having a purpose is essential to our happiness. Psychologist Carol Ryff, head of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin, has studied the topic of happiness for over 30 years. Dr. Ryff has identified 6 critical elements that contribute to our psychological wellbeing and having a purpose—which she describes as having goals in life and a sense of directedness—is one of them (along with self-acceptance, personal growth, positive relationships with others, mastery of your environment and autonomy).
But the benefits of living purposefully go beyond our emotional wellbeing, don’t they?
Absolutely. Having a sense of purpose also benefits our health and longevity. Based on data from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, researchers found that people who reported a greater sense of purpose and direction in life were more likely to outlive their peers. In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15% lower risk of death compared with those who said they were aimless. And it didn’t seem to matter when people found their direction; it could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s.
Other studies have found that adults reporting a low sense of purpose were more likely to have a stroke, heart attack or coronary artery disease requiring a stent or bypass surgery, while those with a high sense of purpose had a 19% lower risk of developing the same conditions. A cardiologist who was one of the study authors said that these findings put living purposefully on a par with other heart-protective activities like exercise.
What’s more, the benefits of purposeful living aren’t limited to heart health. Research at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center suggests that a strong sense of purpose can make the brain stronger and more resistant to the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s and stroke.
So what does living a purposeful life look and feel like?
Having a sense of purpose brings us both peace and excitement; they’re two sides of the same coin. When we know we’re on the right path and having an impact, we can stop questioning if what we do amounts to anything. There’s peace and calm in the certainty that we’re precisely where we’re supposed to be.
It’s also exciting when you know your purpose. The Japanese word for it is ikigai—an understanding of your unique mission in life, your reason to get up in the morning. When you live purposefully, you face each day with energy, clarity and excitement.
Many of the women who answered our Retirement Voices questionnaire spoke of how adrift or disconnected they felt once they left their careers; work had given them a sense of purpose that was now lacking. What’s your advice for someone in this situation?
Retirement is a huge transition. But retiring professionally doesn’t mean you’re retiring from life, setting goals or undertaking purposeful endeavors. Retirement is a wonderful opportunity to rediscover yourself and continue to contribute meaningfully to the world. It begins with a shift in mindset, recognizing the opportunity you now have to focus on yourself instead of others, such as your employer or family.
But why is it important to have a sense of purpose in retirement—isn’t this the time in our lives to just kick back and go where life takes us?
You could try that—and my bet is that after a few weeks or months, you’d get pretty bored! As humans, we’re naturally goal-oriented; we want something to strive for. Waking up with nothing to do or to look forward to isn’t good for us. In fact, it’s said that the two most dangerous times in our life are the year we’re born (due to infant mortality) and the year after we retire—which suggests that we need to have a reason to get out of bed each day!
But what if someone doesn’t have any big, lofty goals for retirement? Maybe all she wants to do is spend time with family and friends, and volunteer at her local animal shelter.
Let’s be clear: retirement doesn’t mean you have to start a new business or launch a nonprofit in order to have a purpose. The word “purpose” can feel a bit overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Calling it your “why” can feel less heavy. Or your legacy—what you wish to leave behind. Or your “thing.” One of my clients decided that her thing was nurturing, and she did it through preparing food and bringing people together. It doesn’t have to be a complicated, big idea. It just means finding what lights you up, what you’re excited to talk about with others.
How do we figure out what our purpose is? What questions should we be asking ourselves?
My approach is built on clarifying four essential questions:
- Who am I today? Define the values that are the essence of your being and guide your life
- Where do I shine? Get clear on your gifts and talents, whether innate or learned
- What do I love to do? Take a deep dive into your interests, or emerging/forgotten passions
- What are my callings? Look at the ways you can contribute to the world, whether it’s your family or planet Earth
Once you’ve uncovered these four essential elements, bring them together into a statement that reflects how you choose to express your purpose in the world. There’s a lot of freedom and creative potential here. And there are so many ways these questions can resonate with us as we face this next chapter.
With a clear purpose, we can take charge of our lives instead of letting life happen to us. We can know exactly why we’re here and what we’re meant to do next. And we can wake up every morning excited to face the day.
Whether you’re retired or still working, do you feel you’re living a purposeful life? What gets you excited about starting each day? Got questions for Hélène? Please share in the comments below!
Hélène is starting her next 6-week Discover Your Purpose online program on January 16. It includes carefully designed weekly exercises that will challenge you and help you get clear on who you are and what you’re meant to do with your one precious life. To learn more, please visit her website.