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Finding Purpose in Retirement

July 21, 2019

Research on healthy aging supports the notion that the happiest retirees are those who have sufficient financial resources to support their lifestyle, strong social connections and perhaps most importantly, a sense of purpose. We have discussed the first two aspects in previous articles. Now let’s explore the importance of the third.

What do we mean by purpose? Purpose comes from being part of something larger than ourselves, the feeling that we are significant, needed and are having a positive effect on others. It means caring deeply enough about something that you are willing to work hard to achieve it.

A big part of what keeps most of us motivated during our working years, is purpose. It might be the desire to build financial security for our family, the knowledge that our talents and efforts are benefitting others or perhaps just the enjoyment of the work itself. The fact is, for most of us, work is about more than getting a paycheck. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning, engage in productive activities and experience the pleasure of accomplishment. It gives our life meaning and validates our self-worth.

How do I occupy my time when I retire? When preparing to transition into retirement, many people overlook the vital role of their work in providing meaning in their lives and the implications of losing that when they leave their jobs. Studies of soon-to-be retirees reveal that many don’t have a plan for what to do with their now substantial free time. With a retirement horizon of 20 or 30 years, the idea of retirement as one long vacation can quickly lose its appeal. The transition from full-time employment to full-time leisure can leave some new retirees adrift, disappointed and even depressed.

Fulfilled or just busy? What happens when a person retires and the structure of their day completely changes? The most common approach for new retirees is to “fill up” their days with leisure and pleasurable activities that they now have time to pursue. Things like spending time with grandchildren, socializing with friends, exercising, shopping, gardening and traveling are important, fun, and can quickly fill up the days. But over the long term, they can come up short for most people. After the initial euphoria of “doing what you want when you want” wears off, without a plan, it can become a task-driven existence that provides little excitement, meaning or identity.

Benefits of purpose. Based on the research over the last several decades, there is mounting evidence that having a purpose is essential at every stage in life and perhaps most importantly in our later years. Researchers continue to find strong connections between having a purpose in adulthood and better physical and mental health, greater happiness and overall higher quality of life. Specifically, meaning in life is associated with greater physical agility, better cognitive functioning, reduced levels of stress, lower incidence of depression, and longer lifespans. Eric Kim, a research scientist in social and behavioral sciences at Harvard suggests that “Perhaps because people with purpose have an overall outlook regarding the importance of their goals in life, they take care of themselves better.”

Finding purpose. How do you find purpose and fulfillment in retirement — mentoring, volunteering, teaching or even working in a field that excites you? Of course, the answer will be different for everyone, because we are all motivated by different things and experience joy in different ways. Still, retirement presents each of us with another opportunity to reinvent ourselves and to dedicate our time and energy to the people and things we care about most and, that gives us meaning, purpose and passion. Whether you are anticipating retirement or already there, ask yourself “How can I make the next 20 to 30 years the best of my life?”

John Spoto is the founder of Sentry Financial Planning in Andover and Danvers. For more information, call 978-475-2533 or visit www.sentryfinancialplanning.com .

This article is for general information purposes only and is not intended to provide specific advice on individual financial, tax, or legal matters.

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