Old age is often associated with wisdom and experience. Many people are happier as they grow older, due to a more developed emotional intelligence and increased depth, and a resulting balanced inner life. However, there are two things that tend to decrease as we age: the sense of meaning and purpose.
From the mid-60s to the end of life, we are in the period of development known as late adulthood. According to psychologist Erik Erikson this stage is called integrity vs. despair. He said that people in late adulthood reflect on their lives and feel either a sense of satisfaction or a sense of failure. People who feel proud of their accomplishments feel a sense of integrity, and they can look back on their lives with few regrets. However, people who are not successful at this stage may feel as if their life has been wasted. They focus on what “would have,” “should have,” and “could have” been. They face the end of their lives with feelings of bitterness, depression, and despair.
Retirement can symbolically mark the end of our middle years, due to the huge lifestyle change that people are too often unprepared for. Many seniors go through a period of trial and error after retirement, in search of new meaning and purpose. This is a normal process that is crucial for happiness in old age. This new way of living a fulfilling life can be reached through countless activities, projects, and goals, and the meaning and purpose behind these are relative and subjective for everyone.
Meaning is a psychological concept linked to the feeling we get when our thoughts, emotions, or actions make a difference and matter to others. Meaning is thus related to the significance of our lives. In contrast, our purpose is the journey we embark on, what we perceive as our calling, or the potential we believe we have for our lives. In practical terms, our purpose reflects our goals and having something to live for. For example, loving your children gives meaning to your life, but it isn’t a purpose. Your purpose might be raising them to become the best version of themselves.
The health benefits of having a purpose in life might also be related to the fact that seniors with a strong sense of purpose have been shown to be happier, take better care of themselves and lead healthier lifestyles. They sleep better and respond better to stress. Also, seniors with a sense of purpose are more engaged in their life, which helps preserve cognitive function and overall physical well-being.
Nobody is born with the knowledge of how to find purpose, and there is no objective answer. What we can do is to keep learning and try to understand ourselves a bit more each day. Having a positive, open mind will lead to the discovery of meaningful projects, passions, and feelings. Here are a few ways to start:
Try to work on something new each day, whether it is taking a different route to work or the grocery store or brushing your teeth with a different hand. Find something that you enjoy and challenge your brain by trying new variations or increasing how well you do an activity. If you like crosswords, move to a more challenging crossword series or try your hand at a new word game. If you like to cook, try a completely different type of food. Learn something you’ve always wanted to, learn to play an instrument? A new language? it’s a great way to continue learning through old age.
Spend time with people you enjoy and who make you feel good. It may be a neighbor who you like to exercise with, shopping with your children, or playing with your grandkids. Even if you are not close by, call or email frequently to keep relationships fresh. It is vital to make new connections, so your social life doesn’t decline. Make it a point to befriend people who are younger than you. Younger friends can reenergize you and help you see life from a fresh perspective.
Write about your life experiences. Focus on the things you’re grateful for. The longer you live, the more you lose. But as you lose people and things, life becomes even more precious. When you stop taking things for granted, you appreciate and enjoy what you have even more.
Acknowledge And Express Your Feelings:
You may have a hard time showing emotions, perhaps feeling that such a display is inappropriate and weak. But burying your feelings can lead to anger, resentment, and depression. Don’t deny what you’re going through. Find healthy ways to process your feelings, perhaps by talking with a close friend or writing in a journal.
Look for the silver lining. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
Accept The Things You Can’t Change:
Many things in life are beyond our control. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems. Face your limitations with dignity and a healthy dose of humor.
Take It One Step At A Time:
When a challenge seems too big to handle, sweeping it under the carpet often appears the easiest option. But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away; it allows both the problem and your anxiety to build. Instead, take things one small step at a time. Even a small step can go a long way to boosting your confidence and reminding you that you are not powerless.
- Ms. Sneha George, Counseling Psychologist, Fortis Malar Hospital