A 2012 study by the same researchers had a similar finding, but in the opposite direction—with young people who felt purposeful building a more solid sense of identity over time. “Identity and purpose development are intertwined processes,” write Patrick Hill of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Anthony Burrow of Cornell University.
At this age, though, only about 20 per cent of teens have a strong sense of purpose in life, at least according to Damon’s work. Others have pie-in-the-sky dreams or fun hobbies, or they’re just trying to get through high school. More often, childhood and adolescence seem to be the time when the building blocks of purpose are established, but we’re still exploring what we want out of life.
Adults: Busy with purpose
According to Damon, most people who find purpose do so in their 20s and 30s. This is when we tend to start building a career and a family—both of which are major sources of purpose during adulthood, along with religion and volunteering.
In the family realm, we may find a deep sense of purpose from raising children, as well as taking care of aging parents. At work, we might feel fulfilled in supporting our coworkers, making a difference in the organization, or contributing to society, Damon writes.
When education professional Paul LeBuffe found out that he was raising a special-needs child, it was a turning point for his family and his career—and his sense of purpose. Since then, he has been working to promote resilience in children and adults, and within his own family. Working in that field means he’s always learning things he can apply to his own life, which helps give him a sense of balance.
While finding purpose can feel like an exciting adventure for young people, who might take gap years or try interesting electives in college, purpose becomes more urgent for adults.
In a 2009 study, Bronk and her colleagues surveyed people of different age groups, including nearly 400 young people (in their teens and early 20s) and over 400 adults (around age 35). When they were searching for purpose, young people were more satisfied with life—but this wasn’t true of adults. In fact, the more they were still actively seeking purpose, the less satisfied they were. The researchers surmise that this comes down to cultural norms and the expectations adults have for themselves.
“In our culture we expect young people to explore what matters most to them, but by midlife, we expect them to have sorted this out,” write Bronk and her colleagues.
At some age, lacking in purpose becomes unpleasant—but Bronk points out that having a purpose isn’t always a picnic, either. Going after a big, long-term goal can be stressful and discouraging; as anyone who has raised a child knows, things that bring us meaning don’t always bring us day-to-day fun and good cheer.
Midlife and beyond: A crossroads of purpose
The causes aren’t too surprising. Two of the biggest sources of purpose for adults, work and family, take a major hit when we retire and when kids leave home. Suddenly, we wake up to days that aren’t structured by meetings and deadlines, by soccer games and homework help. It can feel like the things that defined us—our very identity—are slipping away. On top of all that, niggling health problems can make it physically harder to stay involved with activities and people that might keep us feeling engaged.
Gerontologist and AgeWave founder Ken Dychtwald see a pattern where society doesn’t recognize the value and wisdom of older people, writing them off as feeble or irrelevant, and elders don’t always put in the work to learn new technology and connect with younger people. While society might be telling them to relax and enjoy their golden years, he says, many older adults just feel adrift.
Not everyone has this experience, of course. People who have strong relationships and a positive attitude toward ageing tend to fare better. In one study, researchers interviewed people ages 61-70 and identified the ones who were able to maintain or increase their sense of purpose over the decade. Those individuals often turned their efforts inward to become better human beings, learning new skills or tackling long-held emotional struggles. As Damon explains, the pause of retirement and an empty nest can be an invitation to introspection, in ways that weren’t possible in our chaotic midlives, and a reconnection with the things that truly matter.
John Leland, a New York Times reporter, had the opportunity to follow six New Yorkers over 85 for a year and get an intimate glimpse into their lives. They became his friends, he says, and their stories were featured in his book about happiness. He observes that the elders who held on to a sense of purpose thrived because of their flexibility. They rolled with the punches as their lives changed and evolved, and they remained open to new experiences.
“Those who are able to understand their roles as constantly changing, constantly evolving—it’s a story that they’re still writing—are able to deal with the ups and downs that we all confront better than people who see themselves as fixed in one point,” he says.
In many ways, the pursuit of purpose as an older adult looks a lot like it does for teens. Marc Freedman, founder of the generation-connecting organization Encore.org, sees this parallel, too: Instead of internships, Encore.org offers fellowships where older people spend up to a year working in nonprofits, foundations, and other social sector organizations. The experience is designed to help them find an “encore career,” a purposeful activity that serves the greater good and contributes to the world they’ll leave behind.
Gary Maxworthy, who won Encore.org’s Purpose Prize in 2007, was 56 when his wife died from cancer. After more than three decades in food distribution, he wanted to give back. He started volunteering at a food bank, where he quickly noticed a big problem and a big opportunity: Growers were having to send lots of “imperfect” produce to landfills because they couldn’t sell it, and accepting fresh produce was too difficult for food banks. He created Farm to Family to solve that problem and ensure that fresh fruit and vegetables make it to families in need.