Maintaining Meaning, Purpose, and Mental Health as You Age

Carbon Health Editorial Team
August 18, 2021
5 mins

Life expectancy in the United States has risen dramatically over the past century. The average American lived about 46 years in 1900; nowadays, our mean lifespan clocks in at around 78 years

Modern medicine, improved standards of living, and social welfare initiatives have all contributed to this changing population landscape. But longer lives raise new questions. As we move past life’s traditional benchmarks, such as raising a family and building a career, how do we maintain a sense of purpose in our lives?

How Our Search for Purpose Changes with Age

A recent study from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry explored how we all share a common priority — a search for meaning and purpose in our lives. But the researchers found that, in general, this search’s urgency changes at various points in our lives. 

It spikes in young adulthood, while we navigate career options, relationships, and personal identity. As we settle into a more established course during middle age, the need to find a purpose tends to wane.

But many people begin experiencing radical changes at around age 60, like retirement, loss of family and friends, and new health concerns. This evolution can impact a person’s sense of identity and direction — and once again, the search for meaning in life may begin. 

The Importance of Finding Meaning Later in Life

Maintaining a sense of purpose can get more complicated as we age — as change accelerates and losses add up. But studies show that it’s a defining feature of both physical and mental health for seniors

Research done by Population Health Management found that having goals, a sense of direction, and a feeling of meaning is associated with positive health outcomes. Older adults who say they have a sense of purpose experience fewer chronic conditions, less disability, and reduced mortality. This relationship holds true regardless of a person’s wealth, gender, race, or education level. 

Adults who feel little purpose in life are also at a greater risk for poor mental health. Having direction and intention increases psychological resilience, social skills, and overall well-being. Researchers continue to study this mental health connection, including a potential relationship between low feelings of purpose and high levels of stress hormones

How to Find Purpose as We Age

The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry researchers found that exactly what brings your life meaning isn’t important — simply having a sense of purpose is what leads to greater longevity, happiness, and better health outcomes. 

Their study also found that engaging in activities that bring life meaning helps build a psychological resilience that allows us to weather change. So whether you’re looking ahead to your next phase of life or already celebrating your golden years, forming new habits that align with your values can help you develop a sense of purpose. 

Here are a few approaches that experts say can help you reignite a sense of purpose in your life as you age. 

+ Volunteer your time and skills

Whether it means retiring from a satisfying career or adjusting to “empty nest syndrome,” aging can compromise a person’s sense of identity. Contributing your time to a cause that you’re passionate about redirects this energy and feeling of purpose while encouraging:

     • Socialization and a sense of community

     • Physical activity

     • Confidence in your skills and their relevance

+ Stay active

Many studies confirm both the physical and the mental health benefits of physical activity — but new research also illustrates how exercise can give structure and meaning to one’s life.

The Journal of Behavioral Medicine found a strong association between activity levels and having a sense of purpose in aging populations. No matter what type of exercise you enjoy, including physical activity in your daily life promotes goal-setting, routine, social connection, and feeling engaged with life in productive ways. 

+ Get creative

Creative expression plays a vital role in healthy aging. Engaging in creative activities has been shown to improve mental health indicators, help maintain cognitive function, and stimulate our physical senses. But similar to exercise routines, creative activities also give us structure and goals to work toward — both essential to maintaining a sense of purpose. 

There’s no limit to what can fire up your creative spark. What might work for you comes down to what will set off your passion and help you work toward a goal, whether that means:

     • Writing or working on scrapbooks

     • Practicing a new skill like painting, photography, or playing an instrument

     • Joining a class for cooking, dancing, or learning a new language

+ Engage in small acts of kindness

Another recent study found that expressing compassion and concern for others helps people overcome feelings of meaninglessness and loneliness alike. Volunteering is one approach — but integrating the concept into your everyday life makes it habitual. That means finding meaning and purpose becomes a fulfilling part of your routine.

Make it a goal to strike a positive connection with at least one person in your life each day. This daily effort could be as simple as:

     • Calling to check up on an old friend or sending a card to a family member

     • Holding the door for someone at the store 

     • Offering help to a neighbor — for instance, with babysitting, pet care, or assistance with a home project

     • Cooking a meal or a treat to bring to a friend, neighbor, or family member

Don’t Go It Alone

If you’re a senior struggling to find meaning in your life, understand that this is a normal experience — and that you deserve support through the process. Talk to your healthcare provider about how you can reignite your sense of purpose. By working with a professional to explore new ways to find meaning, you can improve your emotional, mental, and physical well-being while building self-confidence at any age.

Carbon Health offers virtual mental health appointments in California. Book an appointment today.

Carbon Health Editorial Team

The Carbon Health Editorial Team is a group of writers, content creators, and thought leaders who are here to empower you to take charge of your health.