Finding Purpose

by Jon Schwartz January 30, 2017


aging-febOne of my favorite books is Viktor Frankl’s well know piece, “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which Frankl tells of his trying experience in Auschwitz. He writes passionately about a significant predictor of a prisoner’s longevity in a concentration camp: the ability to identify a purpose in life, even in the face of this extreme suffering. Frankl found meaning in Auschwitz by imagining himself as a free man, lecturing to students about the atrocities he witnessed. He woke up each day with the intent to motivate other prisoners to imagine carrying out their purpose once liberated. Through his story, he has inspired many, including me, to find meaning in all circumstances, even during difficult times.

Once the war ended, Frankl began practicing therapy and developed the theory of logotherapy. Logotherapy was founded upon the belief that finding meaning in one’s life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans. “Man’s Search for Meaning” not only grabbed my attention through its heroic story, but also gave me an awareness of the importance of possessing a defining purpose in our day-to-day lives.

Logotherapy teaches us that the need for purpose holds true at every stage in life. When we are young, we place meaning on our education. The sequence often follows with finding meaning through career, marriage, raising children and grandchildren. However, once a person has passed these milestones, where does she find her purpose?

Carl Jung describes this sentiment beautifully when he says, “The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only, its meaning and purpose are different.”

The big question remains, what is the difference?

The famous psychologist Erik Erikson is perhaps most well known for his eight stages of psychosocial development. In the final two stages of life development, Erikson places emphasis on words such as generativity (pursuing efforts that will improve life for future generations), wisdom and integrity. To contrast these more positive themes, Erikson also includes some negative words such as stagnation and despair. At any age, we possess both these positive and negative attributes. However, I have noticed that those aged 65 and older seem to possess a greater imperative to be generative, share their wisdom and carry out integrity than those who are younger. Generally speaking, it is also this same elder age group that I have noticed experience greater stagnation and feelings of despair.

Often, I hear the question, “With all the loss, aches, illness and being retired, what is the purpose of older age?”

From 2015-2050 the United States’ 65 and up population is expected to double. This may be our only growing natural resource. Studies associate volunteerism with lower rates of mortality and depression, increased strength and energy and lower rates of physical disability.  Scientists have also shown that purposeful activity can not only slow cognitive decline but also may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and buffer its effects on the brain.

The potential health and economic benefits of increasing purpose and meaning in older persons are likely huge. By setting new norms, to demand purpose and meaning in older age, we are defining a course that can lead to improved physical and mental well-being. You are never too old to make a difference in the life of someone else. By helping a child learn to read, mentoring young professionals or providing counsel to one who has lost a spouse are just a few examples of ways to give back that will help generations to come. Do not give up, find your meaning and purpose, as our community needs your talent.

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