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Finding Purpose in the Encore Years: If You Can’t Do It the Easy Way… There’s Always the Creative One!

By Becki Cohn-Vargas May 05, 2019 Mindset

“True happiness involves the full use of one’s power and talents.” — John Gardner*

My friend Laurie just retired. At first she was worried. After 35 years teaching at a university, suddenly she no longer had to set her alarm to get up in the morning.

Now, a few months later, she is so busy with different activities that she wonders, as do many of us who are retired, “How did I ever had time to do anything when I was working fulltime and raising a kid?”

I have the same questions. My response to her was, “Enjoy it, after all those years, you deserve a bit of downtime with no guilt attached.”

Need for Purpose

However, the truth is that even when we are retired, we need a sense of purpose. After a few months or so without needing to set an alarm, we still need a reason to get up in the morning.

Researchers who have studied the topic of purpose define the concept as follows: “A sustained commitment to goals that are meaningful to the self and contribute to the common good, to something larger than or beyond the self.”

Across many studies, they have learned that a sense of purpose contributes to well-being at any stage in life, across all cultures and socioeconomic levels.

People have greater psychological health and feel more energy and resilience. It is natural that as older adults we also need to feel engaged and involved with a purpose in our lives.

Pathways to Encore Purpose

A Stanford University study on the pathways to encore purpose included a representative sample of adults from ages 50–92 to examine their perspectives on purpose during their encore years (after retirement).

The participants were asked to describe their prosocial values and their life goals. They were also asked to describe their goals and sense of purpose as they entered what the researchers called their encore years.

With nearly 1,200 surveys and over 100 interviews, the study discovered that:

  • The majority of seniors participating in the study expressed a desire to help and care for others as well as protect the environment.
  • Nearly a third of the participants actively engage in purposeful activities that both matter to them and contribute to the world-at-large, giving them meaning in their lives.

Choose the Purpose That Suits You

Purpose is not limited to one particular form. My friend Randi, together with her brother, personally took care of both of her parents for the last 10 years of their lives.

My mother, in the years before her death, started a Congregation Beth Jacob Cares Committee, organizing rides to the doctor and visiting and caring for the sick members.

My friend Martha is involved with the local Chamber of Commerce, Women Scientists, and the local library. Another friend, Jim, did environmental projects on the delta with a regional park.

For me, even during this last year while I have been getting chemotherapy treatments, I have been writing a book, taking the culmination of my career in education, and sharing what I have learned to make a difference for students.

I do need to point out that currently in the US we have lost what previous generations and many cultures still have, a respect for and veneration of the wisdom of our elders.

But there is no reason why we cannot reclaim it for ourselves, taking all we have learned in our lives and contributing to others in meaningful ways.

If you’re looking for a way to contribute to your local community check out where you can find ideas and actual projects you can get involved in or replicate in your town or community.

What is your “encore” purpose? How did you find it? What does it give you while you give to those around you? Please share in the comments below.

*John Gardner was a Stanford professor, and his long and distinguished career included winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom and founding Common Cause, along with lesser known achievements, co-founding and Experience Corps, two programs with a shared goal: to marshall the time and talent of seniors to work to revitalize communities and help youth. During the last year of his life, John folded a piece of construction paper into a square, wrote one word on it – PURPOSE – and taped it on his desk. This one word helped him, even in illness, to never forget what matters the most to him.

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The Author

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D, has been blogging regularly for Sixty and Me since 2015. She is a retired educator and independent consultant. She's the co-author of three books on identity safe schools where students of all backgrounds flourish. Becki and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have three adult children and one grandchild. You can connect with her at the links below.

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