After the kids have grown and you've retired, having a purpose in life might help extend your life span.
Keep both your mind and body active doing things you already love, but supplement with new experiences, too.
Having a sense of purpose could add years to your life, according to a study published in 2014 in Psychological Science. Researchers from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and the University of Rochester in New York, tracked the physical and mental health of more than 7,000 American adults ages 20 to 75 for 14 years, and found that those who felt they had a purpose or direction in life outlived those who did not.
Once you retire and your children have left home, it's easy to feel as though you have nothing left to accomplish. But older adults can still have career goals and direction, just in a different way, says E. Christine Moll, PhD, a professor in the department of counseling and human services at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and member of the American Counseling Association.
The key, she says with a nod to Jimmy Buffett, is having an attitude of gratitude: Be grateful for what you’ve done and where you’ve been, and look forward to more of the same. “Keep doing,” Dr. Moll advises, perhaps by following one of these 10 ways to live a more purposeful life:
1. Join a Gym
Surprised? Not only will you get in some physical exercise, but you can also make friends and participate in self-reinforcing group activities, says Gary Kennedy, MD, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
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Making dates with your gym buddies fills your calendar and gives you something to look forward to. A survey by Norwegian researchers published in 2011 in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that exercising at any level is associated with better physical and mental health, especially for older men and women. “If you’re confined to a wheelchair, you can still move your arms or even your eyebrows — that’s like doing exercise,” Moll says.
2. Continue Your Hobbies
What were your favorite pastimes before you retired — crocheting, gardening, dancing, or golf? There’s no reason to stop now, Moll says. You may need to alter your hobbies to fit your physical abilities, but you can and should still do the things you enjoy most. “Adapt what you love to fit what you’re able to do today,” she says.
3. Become Politically Active
Older adults have time to attend city council meetings and share their wisdom and their experience, Dr. Kennedy says. Consider working on the campaigns of candidates whose views you admire. If you're unable to go to campaign headquarters, Moll says, volunteer to make phone calls from your home.
4. Try Something New
Retirement doesn’t mean you retire from life, says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a Chicago area psychologist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “This is an opportunity to try something new — maybe learn a new language or travel somewhere you've never been,” she says. Redirect your purpose once you retire to redefine how you spend your time.
5. Go Back to School
A number of colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools, allow seniors to audit courses at no charge, according to Senior Planet, a tech-themed resource for people aged 60 or older. If you feel that you're not very tech-savvy, for instance, sign up and learn how to better use the computer and social media, says Sharon Brangman, MD, professor of medicine and division chief of geriatrics at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, New York, and past president of the American Geriatrics Society. If you’re homebound, she says, take courses online.
The local food pantry or library could likely use your help, and so could area hospitals and nursing homes. Volunteering will get you out and with people of all generations, Kennedy says, and having to be somewhere to do something regularly will keep you feeling needed.
7. Immerse Yourself in Culture
Keeping active intellectually is as important as keeping active physically, Kennedy says. Plan trips to local art galleries, museums, and science centers to learn new things and see what you can recall. If you aren't mobile, you can visit many cultural institutions online.
8. Get Into Games
Look for neighbors or members of your church or senior center who are interested in bridge, poker, or similar pursuits, and form a group that meets regularly to play. Can’t get together? Play chess or other games online.
9. Become an Emeritus
Use your professional skills, Kennedy says. If you were an accountant before retirement, you might volunteer your services at tax time to help other seniors. If you were a teacher, consider reading to, or recording books for, the visually impaired.
Use your time to help local families with childcare needs, Moll says. It could even bring in a little extra cash.
And don’t be discouraged if it takes a while for you to find your new groove. “Just like anything, you may not hit it right away, but you should keep looking,” says Dr. Brangman.