Successful Aging: The pandemic has robbed me of my life’s purpose

Successful Aging: The pandemic has robbed me of my life’s purpose

I recently sold my business which I started 35 years ago at the age of 35. I was planning the new chapter in my life, trying to re-invent myself when the pandemic hit, leaving me quite undone. My challenge is to find a new sense of purpose when so much is shut down. Any suggestions? Many thanks. N.M.

Dear N.M.

Life today is not orderly, to say the very least. The word “pivot” has been used to indicate change. Today that means a quick change that has been dictated by the environment. As many of us may face physical and social isolation, job and financial losses, challenges of social justice and fears of the virus, finding a sense of purpose may seem like a luxury. Yet, it is essential to give us a reason to carry on and to maintain our health and well-being.

Let’s not underestimate the role of purpose in getting through difficult times. Victor Frankl, Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning” based on his time in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Frankl observed prisoners who found purpose in their lives under the worst possible conditions were more resilient and more likely to survive than those that did not.

A growing body of literature supports this outcome. Purposeful living has health benefits and is tied to longer lives. Based on a study of 7,000 participants age 50 and older, researchers found that those without a sense of purpose were more than twice as likely to die than those who had one. Purpose was more indicative of longevity than gender, race or educational levels and was more important in reducing the risk of death than drinking, smoking or regular exercise. Researchers noted that having any purpose is better than none. The actual purpose was not important. It could be growing orchids, quilting, looking after grandchildren or starting a business. The important piece is having something to do that is exciting and serves as a motivator to “get going.”

So where to begin?

Take a look backwards: Get some clues from your past that may give you some direction. What has given you a sense of purpose during your lifetime, which may include your work and other aspects of your life? Was it making a difference? Bringing the best out of others? Being successful or well thought of? Creating something new such as a financial strategy, program. quilt or quiche?

Be a contributor: Perhaps the easiest way to create a sense of purpose is by doing something that contributes to the well-being of others. When we feel good from volunteering, donating money or just thinking about donating money, the part of the brain that is activated is the same part that responds to the pleasures of food and sex.

Grow and give: Those are the words from Richard Leider, executive coach and author of “Unlock the Power of Purpose.” Based on an interview with Blue Zones, Leider says “A universal well-lived day is one where we are both growing and giving.” To find that new purpose, consider growing as a goal. Leider says that to grow, we need to be curious which is one of the best skills to cultivate. He adds that curious people tend to live longer, better and makes the following suggestion, “Put a Post-it on your mirror with the default purpose: Grow & Give. Every morning for one week, look at it and envision how to live it that day. Every evening, look at it again and check in on how you did. You’ll be living with purpose.”

Stay connectedcreate a sounding board: We humans are social; it’s part of our DNA. Additionally, we learn and grow by connecting with others. And think about giving. Contact someone who lives alone and let them know you care and are thinking of them; share some part of your life and show interest in theirs. Place a telephone call, write a note, use Skype or Zoom to contact friends, family, colleagues and even those with whom you have not spoken to for a while. Consider creating a sounding board of those who will listen to your ideas and provide feedback. Leider refers to these folks as “committed listeners.”

Maintain fitness: Although this may not be your ultimate purpose, being and feeling fit will add to your energy level, quality of sleep, clear thinking and self-esteem, allowing you to be the best you can be. Set some daily fitness goals.

One last point: Be grateful. Gratitude is associated with purpose and serves as a motivator to engage in altruistic behavior – doing good for others.

N.M., Thank you for your important question, which is so relevant during these unprecedented times. Stay safe and well and continue to be curious, learn, grow and stay connected. In doing so, you will find your new purpose.