The mélange of feelings that arise before, and during, retirement is stunningly confusing. Leaving behind work stresses and responsibilities yields relief. On the other hand, not knowing what to do to feel useful or have a sense of purpose yields apprehension.

The thing is, for many people, work provides some sense of purpose. For some it is a way of achieving an all-consuming goal or objective, their life purpose. If the later describes you, clinical psychologist Sara Yogev points out that when you are cut off from your life purpose, you are cut off from your reason for being.

“It’s a mistake to think you can turn off a life purpose at will… While some people burn out and lose interest in a life purpose, most retain that itch to scratch.”1 Yogev, S. A couple’s guide to happy retirement and aging. 15 keys to long-lasting vitality and connection. Familius LLC, 2018.

On the other hand, your work may never have felt like your raison d’être. Whether or not you got purpose from work or from life beyond work there is no question that having a purpose is critical to a healthy retirement.

Why bother with purpose?

Reasons abound for the value of having purpose in life – a sense of meaning, place, the ability to exercise choice and know whether a situation or person really fits in your life, a sense of self, a sense of ease knowing what is or is not important, the ability to have a greater impact on the world and confidence.2 Siner, K. Why is finding your purpose so important?

Regardless of the nature of your purpose, as long as you have one, there is research to support this will decrease your risk for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events, like heart attacks or stroke. Furthermore, the association between a low level of purpose in life and death remains true whether or not you are rich or poor, and regardless of gender, race, or education level. As one researcher put it, “The need for meaning and purpose is No. 1. It’s the deepest driver of well-being there is.”3 Gordon, M. What’s your purpose? Finding a sense of meaning in life is linked to health. NPR 15 May 2019.

What is it to have a sense of purpose?

Purpose and meaning are often used interchangeably yet the distinction provided by retirement life-planning expert Dr. Richard P. Johnson, resonates for me:

“Meaning is a felt sense we experience; it is an amalgam of feelings which together offer us peace, comfort, a sense of utility, a connection with others, and a sense that we are doing something very necessary and worthwhile, …. Yet we can’t experience any of this if we don’t have a purpose. Purpose … is the goal, the objective, … the direction in which we are headed. Without a clearly identified and well-articulated purpose, we could never experience the sweetness of life meaning.”4 Johnson, R.P. The New Retirement – Living your Dream, Career Partners International, LLC 2019.

Whereas we may struggle with figuring out how our own purpose looks, it is clear how life feels when you don’t have a purpose. Victor Frankl, famous for creating a school of psychology based on the idea that we are strongly motivated to live purposefully and meaningfully, captures this feeling in what he calls “Sunday neurosis,”

“… that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest … Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.”5 Frankl, V.E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster 1984

Political and cultural commentator and New York Times writer David Brooks poignantly describes his version of Sunday neurosis, the void he discovered within himself after his marriage fell apart:

“…I had work friends, weekday friends, but I didn’t have weekend friends. And so my weekends were these long, howling silences. And I was lonely … And the painful part of that moment was the awareness that the emptiness in my apartment was just reflective of the emptiness in myself …”6 Brooks, D. The lies out culture tells us about what matters – and a better way to life. 2019.

To be clear, this type of crisis is also seen among people who have left the paid work force, retirees living without purpose. A sense of frustration, worthlessness, and internal angst overshadows their spirit.7 Johnson, R.P. What Color is Your Retirement? Career Partners International, LLC 2006.

Dialing into your purpose

There is agreement across disciplines that looking at what is important to you, what are your values, is an element to discovering your purpose, a subject covered here previously. Beyond values, living with purpose is driven by what drives or motivates us.8 Davis, T. Five steps to finding your life purpose. Psychology Today, 12 Dec 2017.

In his 2019 book Job Optional*, Certified Financial Planner Casey Weade offers a compelling list of 15 motivators to consider when thinking about your purpose ranging from accomplishments (collecting experiences) to value (providing value to others and feeling valued). All 15 motivators are shown below. Notably, Weade insists his clients uncover their purpose prior to creating a retirement financial plan.9 Weade, C., Job Optional*: *The Science of Retiring with Confidence; The Art of Living with Purpose. Brisance Books 2019

What motivates you?

  1. Accomplishments – to collect experiences
  2. Action – to stay relevant and active
  3. Authority – to be a leader and contributor
  4. Belonging – to feel a part of something bigger
  5. Creativity – to express your artistic side
  6. Friendship – to stay connected to a social circle
  7. Identity – to feel like yourself through actions
  8. Intellectual stimulation – to keep your brain engaged
  9. Lifelong learning – to continue to develop new skills
  10. Making a difference – to leave a legacy and impact
  11. Mentoring – to pass on your knowledge to others
  12. Passion – to engage in what makes you feel most alive
  13. Problem solving – to contribute to a solution
  14. Self-esteem – to feel good through contribution
  15. Value – to provide value to others and feel valued

Reprinted with permission from Job Optional*: *The Science of Retiring with Confidence; The Art of Living with Purpose by Casey Weade. Brisance Books 2019.

Your work can be a path to discovering what is important to your well-being, what drives you. Yet what got you into your profession may not be what kept you going. Recently a financial service professional confided that he was drawn to his work initially because of the lifestyle it would provide. Now, decades into his career, he says,

“…I connect emotionally with my clients and I focus more on how they feel about their portfolios instead of fixating on the various components that make up their accounts. By doing things this way, the inputs don’t detract from the overall sum of the parts. It allows me to focus on the people and not the product.”

For this individual, getting to know his clients and their families and subsequently helping them is a powerful driver. This same individual is an avid golfer, his way of recharging after hours talking with clients. What would his internal life look like if he decided to retire, solely to golf? Something would surely be sorely missing.

This brings me to one more element in unveiling purpose – what energizes you? This is about applying your gifts, talents and strengths.10 Davis, T. Five steps to finding your life purpose. Psychology Today, 12 Dec 2017. Knowing what is important and drives you is not enough if you move forward in a way that de-energizes or burns you out.

A case in point – a woman in my circle has a regulatory policing role in a renewable energy company. Climate justice is high on her values list and is one of her drivers. From the outside it looks like she is living a purposeful life however her work is sucking the life blood out of her! Frankl said, “You know you have found your purpose when you are confronted with your authentic and genuine self.”11 Frankl, V.E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster 1984 This regulatory policing role is not authentic to this young woman, a skilled communicator and educator. Awareness of what energizes you is no less critical in retirement.

Looking at values, what drives and energizes us is a gross oversimplification of how our purpose is revealed. Yet, in doing so, you are determining what you have in hand – talent, background, education, freedom, networks, opportunities, wealth, ideas, and creativity. As Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life says,

“…You’re wired to do certain things … These things shape you. And if you want to know what you ought to be doing with your life, you need to look at your shape … look at what’s in your hand …”12 Warren, R. A life of purpose, 2006.

Psychologist James Hollis reminds us that when we are doing what is right for us, we will feel a sense of purpose, meaning and satisfaction, and that communicates itself to others. “…The meaning of our life will be a direct function of the degree to which we become more nearly ourselves…”13 Hollis, J. Living an examined life: Wisdom for the second half of the journey. Sounds True, Inc., 2018. No purpose is more worthy than others – the goal is to uncover your purpose, whatever that means to you.

References

1 Yogev, S. A couple’s guide to happy retirement and aging. 15 keys to long-lasting vitality and connection. Familius LLC, 2018.
2 Siner, K. Why is finding your purpose so important?
3 Gordon, M. What’s your purpose? Finding a sense of meaning in life is linked to health. NPR 15 May 2019.
4 Johnson, R.P. The New Retirement – Living your Dream, Career Partners International, LLC 2019.
5, 11 Frankl, V.E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster 1984
6 Brooks, D. The lies out culture tells us about what matters – and a better way to life. 2019.
7 Johnson, R.P. What Color is Your Retirement? Career Partners International, LLC 2006.
8 Davis, T. Five steps to finding your life purpose. Psychology Today, 12 Dec 2017.
9 Weade, C., Job Optional*: *The Science of Retiring with Confidence; The Art of Living with Purpose. Brisance Books 2019
10 Davis, T. Five steps to finding your life purpose. Psychology Today, 12 Dec 2017.
12 Warren, R. A life of purpose, 2006.
13 Hollis, J. Living an examined life: Wisdom for the second half of the journey. Sounds True, Inc., 2018.

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