7 Steps To Finding Your True Purpose

04/15/2015 10:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015


With average life expectancy now approaching 80, Americans can look forward to spending almost two decades enjoying retirement. That free time can seem heavenly at first—until the days stretch on. "[After] the honeymoon stage comes the disenchantment stage," says Dr. Sara Yogev, psychologist and author of "A Couple's Guide to Happy Retirement." "People feel like everything is purposeless. They can get depressed, and we would like to avoid that stage."

Discovering your purpose—your driving force—is a proven way of escaping that emptiness. "From what we know from research, those that have a sense of purpose are happier," says Dr. Yogev. "Their adjustment to retirement is better and their marriages are happier." What’s more, studies show that retirees with a defined, actionable purpose have improved cognitive function and a reduced risk of stroke.

Of course, uncovering your fundamental motivation is no small task. We asked Dr. Yogev for tips on how to get the ball rolling.

1. Write your values and interests down
Nothing helps crystallize your thoughts like seeing them on paper. Take time to contemplate your strongest-held interests and central beliefs. Then, rate them. No, really. "Put them on a scale and rate them 1 to 10," suggests Dr. Yogev. This exercise will help you prioritize what’s most important to you, which can guide you toward your essential purpose.

#2. Ask yourself how you want to be remembered
Contemplating your legacy—the accomplishments that live on after you pass—is key in resolving your reason for being. "Imagine your grandchild is talking to his own grandchildren about you. What is said? Would he say you were generous and kind? Would he say you were reliable?" asks Dr. Yogev. These questions can help guide you towards finding a purpose for which you will be proud to be remembered, and is compatible with who you are and how you are seen by others.

To help this exercise along, remember your own mentors and idols, and consider modeling your behavior after theirs. "Think about people you admire and respect. Who are they? What is it that they do that might be realistic for you to do, in some way?"

#3. Enter your state of flow.
According to Dr. Yogev, a state of flow is, "when time goes by and it flies, since you’re so immersed what it is you do." For some people, it’s a social engagement. For others, all it takes is a favorite solo activity, like fishing or reading. Dr. Yogev asks, "Is it a stamp collection? Is it when you write or paint something? Maybe it’s when you’re with friends." Consider the details, and use them as a guide toward finding your purpose: "What are you doing? Who is with you?"

#4. Don't confuse purpose with passion
While your purpose and your passion can match up, they might not. "Be careful with the word 'passion,'" says Dr. Yogev. "Passion is stronger than purpose. Most people have or can find something that gives them purpose, but isn’t necessarily something they feel passionate about. Expect to find a sense of purpose in retirement, where you feel needed, valued and contributing—but not necessary passion. Fewer people find passion most find purpose."

For example, you may be passionate about rescuing elephants in Africa, but it may not fulfill you as much as volunteering at the senior center. Volunteering may make you feel useful and valued, but you might not consider it a passion. Ultimately, "You want to feel a sense of productivity," she says. "As long as you feel productive, and it’s something that gives you a sense of appreciation, [you’ll be fine]."

#5. Remember: Your purpose is your own.
If you and your spouse share similar purposes, that’s fine. However, it’s important not to enter retirement believing they must mesh. Dr. Yogev says, "We cannot force or impose our values on a spouse. He/she needs to find one for themselves. Don’t force each other to do what is meaningful to you."

Not only will this give you the freedom to choose your own path, but it will provide fuel for your marriage. "Give enough space," she urges. "It can make a couple’s life richer. When you have dinner together, you have something to talk about."

#6. Devise a plan of attack.
When it comes to purpose, "It’s important to be able to translate something you’re interested in to action mode, to a timeline," says Dr. Yogev.

In other words, it’s nice to have dreams and goals, but to make them a reality, you must create an actionable strategy, complete with concrete dates to meet objectives. If your purpose is to teach English to immigrants, for example, you might set time aside to research local programs, and then choose an exact day to begin volunteering. "Be specific in your actions," says Dr. Yogev. "Otherwise, nothing happens."

#7. Find a compatible organization. Once you have an idea of your purpose, motivate yourself by seeking out similarly minded people. "I’m a big proponent of volunteering—helping yourself by helping others," says Dr. Yogev. "Find a cause or activity you care about, and find ways to engage in it." To get you started, here are a few of our favorite philanthropies, clubs, and groups catering to older adults:

  • As stated in their FAQ, Encore, "advances the idea of leveraging the skills and talents of experienced adults to improve communities and the world."
  • SCORE: Formerly the Service Corporation of Retired Executives, this non-profit pairs mentors with small businesses, to the benefit of both.
  • Senior Corps: The U.S. government’s main service engine for older adults includes Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Foster Grandparents, and Senior Companions, among many other groups.

Earlier on HuffPost50:

10 Great Ideas For Retirement Jobs
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