The positive pursuit of a new purpose after midlife

November 22, 2020 Providence Seniors Health Team


In this article:

  • Providence clinician talks about finding satisfaction in your later years -- like how staying busy after midlife may boost brain power.

  • People with purpose are more positive, study finds.

  • Found a purpose? Next is making a plan — starting with these tips.

Many older adults are fulfilling their purpose and helping others in the process.

Even though humanitarian Mother Teresa suffered from health problems in the last 20 years of her life, nothing could keep her from living out her purpose of serving the poor and needy. She was in her 80s and still traveling around the world to visit the different branches of The Missionaries of Charity. 

British author Mary Wesley published her first adult novel when she was 71 years old (before that, she had published three kids’ books while in her 50s). It was the beginning of a very creative period in Wesley’s life, during which she wrote a total of seven popular novels through age 79. Once she became successful, her friends noted that she gave away a great deal of money and had once mentioned that she liked to “send money to strangers because she had once been so poor herself and would have appreciated a cheque out of the blue.”

Wisconsin businessman Wally Blume didn’t have the money or the time to start his own business until he launched Denali Flavors in 1989 at age 54. Even then it was a risky move because he used his savings to start the business. Blume now has a booming ice cream company. The company’s 10,000 Scoop Challenge has raised more than $400,000 in much-needed funding for local charities around the country.

You’re never too old to start a new journey

Some people call older adults like Mother Teresa, Wesley, and Blume “late bloomers.” Or they’re said to be enjoying a “second act.” One thing is certain, these seniors and others like them experienced a level of creativity, vitality, and productivity that isn’t hampered by aging. And they helped others in the process.

As the saying goes, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been" – a poetic way of saying you can pursue long-held interests, new hobbies, and even dormant dreams. And you can be all the better for it. 

Whether you’re making the transition out of full-time work, are already retired or are thinking of pursuing an entirely new vocation, there may be no better time than now. Here are some tips to get you started on your journey.

Staying busy may be better for your brain

Do you feel you’re most energetic and positive when you have a number of things to do? You may be onto something. 

Recent research suggests that one of the best ways to keep your brain sharp as you age may be staying busy. Over the last few years, scientists have encouraged older adults to engage in activities that offer mental challenges. This newer study shows that you may get the same kind of benefits from having a full schedule of events that are meaningful to you.

Of the adults aged 50 to 89 who took part in the study, researchers found that having a schedule full of rewarding activities was linked to:

  • Improved memory
  • Sharper reasoning
  • A greater vocabulary
  • Better brain processing

That ties in neatly with the idea that pursuing something new — a new business,  job,  volunteer pursuits or even hobbies — can keep you occupied and may boost your brain power in the process. In other words, while you’ll want to keep a balance as a “human being” and a “human doing,” you probably don’t need to fear having a lot going on in your life. That includes pursuing a new purpose.

The positive power of a new purpose

Being busy isn’t the same as being in a rush or going through the motions. Granted, it takes effort to create changes in life, but that’s the beauty of age: with it comes wisdom. And the wise thing to do is plan the next steps for your new undertaking. The best place to start is clarifying your sense of purpose.

A Stanford-led study called “Purpose in the Encore Years: Shaping Lives of Meaning and Contribution,”  aims to better understand the nature of purposeful living after the midlife years, and what helps drive it. The study defined purpose as a lasting commitment to goals that mean something to the person. These goals also add in some way to the common good — to something larger than themselves. 

The study supported a growing amount of proof that purpose is linked to:

Purpose isn’t limited to any one area either. It can be found in family, work, faith, fun and other important life missions. The survey was based on 1,200 survey responses and 102 one-hour interviews. Here are three important findings: 

  • Most older adults show high levels of behaviors such as helping and caring for others, nature and the environment. They also support equal treatment for all and seek to understand people who aren’t like them. 
  • Nearly 31% of older adults in the United States identify, prioritize, adopt and actively pursue goals that are central to their identity and sense of meaning in life. And, as mentioned above, their goals also contribute to the greater good. 
  • People with purpose are more positive. Ninety-four percent of the people interviewed for the study and who were purposeful, shared a trait the researchers call “positivity.” It ties into words like joy, hopefulness, optimism and other related emotions. Life wasn’t a bed of roses for the people in this group either — many were dealing with serious problems like poverty, poor health, family issues and grief. Still, they focused on the joy and satisfaction in their lives, especially when it came to doing things for the greater good. 

Pursue your new purpose — but start with a plan

Once you’re dialed into your purpose, there are some practical things you’ll want to keep in mind as you prepare to pursue it. Here are three tips to get you on your way.

  • Do your due diligence. After you’ve done some soul-searching,  it’s time to do some research. This will help you see which skills will be useful to you, and where you need better training  — whether on the job or in the classroom.
  • Take care of your finances. Be ready for change ahead of time by paying off your debts and getting used to a different standard of living. Pursuing your purpose means you may have less income, at least for a while. Ask yourself if you’ll need to work part-time while volunteering, especially if you need health insurance.
  • Prepare to navigate a new network. Whether you’re pursuing a totally new vocation or volunteering for the first time ever, it’s key to start a new professional network in your community. That means going beyond your current circle of contacts and coworkers—and possibly out of your comfort zone in the process. 

The beauty of becoming

The latest research shows that pursuing a new purpose, along with meaningful activities and helping others, have a positive effect on the mental and physical health of older adults. This outcome can be far more rewarding than power and material success. 

You may be amazed to see what happens when you “become what you might have been.”


Find a doctor

If you need to find a primary care doctor or specialist, find the right one for you in our Providence provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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Related resources

This Doctor's Story Will Make You Want to Take Up a Hobby

5 myths about aging – and why you should ignore them

How to fight age-related stress? Find your purpose

Purpose in the Encore Years: Shaping Lives of Meaning and Contribution

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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