What Gives Your Life Meaning?

Fall is in the air here in Southern Missouri.  Leaves are starting to have that dry, faded look that tells us they are preparing to drop from the trees.  Likewise, the beginning of fall whispers to us that another year is passing by quite quickly and we might take a moment to reflect on what gives our lives meaning.  Most people do better when their lives have a sense of meaning, that much is a given.  For highly sensitive people the need is even more profound because our need for meaning is more deeply felt within us and reflected on as an internal need.  For high sensation seeking highly sensitive people the need for meaning in life changes from moment to moment as we seek novelty, new experiences, and/or thrills.  We also collectively (HSPs and HSS/HSPs) feel a strong need to stay ahead of boredom and will make changes in our lives to place us in situations and circumstances where we may experience new stimulation.  Everyone is different, of course, and some may seek less stimulation (or different stimulation) than others but it is the experience of the moment, whether that has meaning for us, that determines how we feel about it.

Many of our day to day routines are mundane and simplistic and we generally will do them, as a matter of necessity, but we derive little meaning from them other than meeting a need.  The deeper need is to feel a sense of alignment with our intrinsic interests leading to potential growth and development.  Those activities can be deeply meaningful to us and may even feel quite profound as we feel them more deeply and spend more time processing them in our minds.  There are health benefits to such an orientation as well with improved outcomes across the health spectrum.  As a middle-aged soon to be 51 year old with my last child graduating high school and off to college the prospect of shifting my sense of purpose to focus less on parental duties to what intrinsically motivates me is quite real.  Fortunately, the existential issue of meaning and purpose in life has always been an object of reflection throughout my life and I have strived to arrange my life in such a way as to allow my daily energy budget to be expended on those issues I am most interested in.

I also take the long perspective and have the additional example of observing how my mother seems to be aging at 73.  She’s now living in a seniors-only apartment complex but is still independent.  As time has worn on I have weighed whether her situation will become my situation.  I have also considered how very different our paths in life have been and how my proactive actions to afford myself certain opportunities has resulted in what will, in all likelihood, be continued opportunities for engagement with issues I feel a personal connection with.  So many of the seniors I see fall into oine of the two camps: either they seem to exhibit a sense of purpose and focus on things that keep them mentally active, socially engaged, and experiencing life in a sense beyond themselves or they seem to exhibit an intense inner focus where their purpose appears to be much more narrow and anxiety-filled with greater attention to every ache, pain, and shortcoming (real and imagined).

Barry’s story below of feeling a desire to “just relax” countered by a need to “be a good person” through doing things (feeling productive) is probably typical of most people.  For the sensitive person the need to care for ourselves increases as we age, not just the need for self-management but the way we live our lives overall.  As the demands of parenthood decrease for most of us (though more seniors are now raising grandkids) our focus can shift to the incedible sense of freedom and opportunity we should feel to realign our lives to become more satisfying in a personal sense.  Too many of us simply continue on as we always have without taking advantage of the opportunity to really “shake things up.”  Obviously, some HSPs will cringe at the notion of “shaking things up” but many would benefit from a complete change of scenery and routine.  High sensation seeking highly sensitive people live in a state of continual “shakeup” so our focus is usually on what comes next.  In both cases, we should focus on what gives our lives meaning.  It is a fallacy to focus on what makes us happy, as happiness is, at best, a fleeting state.  The more we engage in activities that give our lives a sense of meaning so why focus on an illusion (happiness)?  The more your daily life aligns with your intrinsic interests the greater the likelihood you will feel “happy.”

Lastly, we might ask our selves how do I know what gives my life a sense of meaning?  What if you have simply spent your life in pursuit of your daily bread?  When daily existence has prodeominantly occupied your time you will likely need to pull back and do some explorations to find things that give your life purpose.  I’m not suggesting hobbies here, as that implies superficiality.  Rather, focus on where your deep down interests lie and seek ways to explore those more fully.  This may involve moving beyond your comfort zone…  To contextualize this let’s consider that life is always uncertain and unpredictable, if you don’t believe this simply wait until the next hurricane hits, the next car repair is a priority, or someting simply happens you could have never imagined.  The nature of life is flux, to believe otherwise is an illusion.  What we can predict is that we will age and that our time is finite.  Far from being depressing this reality should envigorate us to explore ourselves, to do things we have never done, or to experience a sense of meaning through a hundred small acts we can do where we live.

This approach to living actually applies across the lifespan.  Finding meaning in life through choosing how we spend our time is the great opportunity we have, the responsibility is to honor the gift of life by continuing to grow and develop in every way.  As fall begins I invite you to consider what gives your life meaning and how you might rearrange it to be more fullfilling, satisfying, and purposeful.

-Tracy Cooper

Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career

Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person

Soul Purpose: Seniors With Strong Reasons To Live Often Live Stronger

August 31, 2017

“I think people can get a sense of purpose from very simple things: from taking care of a pet, working in the garden or being kind to a neighbor,” says Patricia Boyle, a researcher and professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. (RooM/Getty Images)

After making it through the maelstrom of middle age, many adults find themselves approaching older age wondering “what will give purpose to my life?” now that the kids have flown the nest and retirement is in the cards.

How they answer the question can have significant implications for their health.

Over the past two decades, dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation.

Now, a new report in JAMA Psychiatry adds to this body of evidence by showing that older adults with a solid sense of purpose tend to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds — key indicators of how rapidly people are aging.

Why would a psychological construct (“I feel that I have goals and something to live for”) have this kind of impact? Seniors with a sense of purpose may be more physically active and take better care of their health, some research suggests. Also, they may be less susceptible to stress, which can fuel dangerous inflammation.

“Purposeful individuals tend to be less reactive to stressors and more engaged, generally, in their daily lives, which can promote cognitive and physical health,” said Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t associated with the study.

But what is purpose, really? And how can it be cultivated?

Anne Newman, a 69-year-old who splits her time between Hartsdale, north of New York City, and Delray Beach, Fla., said she’s been asking herself this “on a minute-by-minute basis” since closing her psychotherapy practice late last year.

Building and maintaining a career became a primary driver in her life after Newman raised two daughters and went back to work at age 48. As a therapist, “I really loved helping people make changes in their lives that put them in a different, better position,” she said.

Things became difficult when Newman’s husband, Joseph, moved to Florida and she started commuting back and forth from New York. Over time, the travel took a toll, and Newman decided she didn’t want a long-distance marriage. So, she began winding down her practice and thinking about her next chapter.

Experts advise that people seeking a sense of purpose consider spending more time on activities they enjoy or using work skills in a new way. Newman loves drawing and photography. She has investigated work and volunteer opportunities in Florida, but nothing has grabbed her just yet.

“Not knowing what’s going to take the place of work in my life — it feels horrible, like I’m floundering,” she admitted, in a phone interview.

I didn’t ask myself did I have a larger purpose in life — I asked myself what gives meaning to my life.

Barry Dym

Many people go through a period of trial and error after retirement and don’t find what they’re looking for right away, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California-San Diego. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”

“People don’t like to talk about their discomfort because they think it’s unusual. And yet, everybody thinks about this existential question at this time of life: ‘What are we here for?’” he noted.

Newman’s focus has been on getting “involved in something other than personal satisfaction — something larger than myself.” But that may be overreaching.

“I think people can get a sense of purpose from very simple things: from taking care of a pet, working in the garden or being kind to a neighbor,” said Patricia Boyle, a leading researcher in this field and professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

“Even small goals can help motivate someone to keep going,” she continued. “Purpose can involve a larger goal, but it’s not a requirement.”

Older adults often discover a sense of purpose from taking care of grandchildren, volunteering, becoming involved in community service work or religion, she said. “A purpose in life can arise from learning a new thing, accomplishing a new goal, working together with other people or making new social connections when others are lost,” she said.

Tara Gruenewald’s research highlights how important it is for older adults to feel they play a valuable role in the life of others.

“I think what we often lose as we age into older adulthood is not a desire to contribute meaningfully to others but the opportunity to do so,” said Gruenewald, chair of the department of psychology at California’s Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University. Her research has found that people who perceive themselves as being useful had a stronger feeling of well-being and were less likely to become disabled and die than those who didn’t see themselves this way.

“In midlife, we contribute to others partly because it’s demanded of us in work and in our social relationships,” Gruenewald said. “As we grow older, we have to seek out opportunities to contribute and give to others.”

Some researchers try to tease out distinctions between having a sense of purpose and finding meaning in life; others don’t. “Practically, I think there’s a lot of overlap,” Boyle said.

After Barry Dym, 75, retired a year ago from a long career as an organizational consultant and a marriage and family therapist, he said, “I didn’t ask myself did I have a larger purpose in life — I asked myself what gives meaning to my life.”

Answering that question wasn’t difficult; certain themes had defined choices he’d made throughout his life. “What gives meaning to me is helping people. Trying to have an impact. Working with people very closely and helping them become much better at what they do,” Dym said in a phone conversation from his home in Lexington, Mass.

In retirement, he’s carrying that forward by mentoring several people with whom he has a professional and personal relationship, bringing together groups of people to talk about aging, and starting a blog. Recently, he said, he wrote about discovering that he feels freer now to “explore who I am, where I came from and what meaning things have to me than at any other point of my life.”

And therein lies a dilemma. “I feel of two minds about purpose in older age,” Dym said. “In some ways, I’d like to just shuck off that sense of having to do something to be a good person, and just relax. And in other ways, I feel deeply fulfilled by the things I do.”

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

KHN’s coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation.

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