Other Encore.org fellows include retired doctors caring for underserved patients and retired tech company executives helping to improve online government services. Meanwhile, organizations like Stanford’s Advanced Leadership Institute and the Modern Elder Academy offer college-like experiences for older adults looking for a fresh start.
In Freedman’s experience, very few of us will wake up one day with a totally new purpose in life. Instead, he observes people draw on the skills, knowledge, and values they’ve cultivated over a lifetime to start a new chapter.
That’s good news, because it means the building blocks of purpose are already within us when we reach maturity.
The practice of purpose
Years ago, Bronk interviewed young people about their sense of purpose, hoping to gain some insight into how it developed. Afterwards, she was surprised to hear how much the participants enjoyed the conversation. In fact, she and her team discovered that talking with young people about the things that mattered to them actually increased their sense of purpose in life—an outcome the researchers hadn’t even been looking for.
That’s partly why Bronk believes, deep down, that everyone has a purpose, even if they don’t realize it or know what it is yet. And, the purpose changes across lifetime.
“We all have things that we care about, we all have special talents that we can apply to make a meaningful difference in the world around us,” she says. Other researchers agree that you can have a sense of purpose even if you can’t write it down in a simple sentence: “My purpose is…”
As we’ve seen, we can have multiple purposes that rise and fall in importance over our lifetime, as schedules are juggled and priorities shift. When we face transitions, whether it’s changing careers, going through divorce or illness, or hitting a milestone birthday, we may be prompted to slow down, reflect, and reprioritize.
In other words, purpose is a constant practice—which is something Leland took away from his time with New York’s “oldest old.”
“They believed that purpose was something you created, not something you sought, and it would be something that you have to keep creating,” reflects Leland. “I think they would say that happiness would be the same thing. It’s something that you have within you, and you have to tap it and recognize it and cultivate it rather than waiting for it to come your way.”
Written by: KIRA M. NEWMAN
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.”