Keys to Healthy Aging – Part Two: Having A Sense of Purpose

by Robin Bush, ISR Communications

In our quest to explore the keys to healthy aging, last month, we looked at how our reaction to change can affect our aging process. Now it’s time to consider the profound impact having a purpose in your life can have on your health and well-being. For years, your sense of purpose may have derived from the work you did and how that work benefitted others. However, as you age and circumstances change, those changes create opportunities to apply what you have learned in your years to new ways that continue to fulfill your purpose.

Older Americans are often told to sit back and take a well-deserved “rest.”  Actually, one of the things that makes the most difference in healthy aging is to get up out of your chair and do something you feel is important. Our purpose can also be described as our “calling” or driving force. It is our guiding light to building a satisfying life. So, ask yourself, what feels important to me? It’s not about whether you take on a new hobby; it’s about whether mastering that hobby means you can do something valuable with your knowledge, like teaching someone younger a skill that will improve their life. It’s about identifying what mark you want to leave on the world that will make it a better place because you were here.

“People with a strong sense of purpose tend to weather life’s ups and downs better.” (Anthony Burrow, College of Human Ecology at Cornell University). He identifies that purposeful people tend to live longer and are less sick. Why is that? “Purpose,” he says, “is the active ingredient that helps us stay stable.”  “Higher levels of purpose in life have also been associated with better sleep and can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.” (Mt. Sinai Medical Center, 2015). Research has also shown that having a sense of purpose decreases depression, anxiety, loneliness, and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

“With purpose and the right mindset, aging is not weakness but strength.” Dr. Marc Agronin (The End of Old Age). Dr. Agronin believes we can step beyond the ‘stagnant quo’ and age better no matter our challenging circumstances. He describes the artist Henri Matisse who was unable to paint during his final years and then made the most out of his situation by turning his skills as an artist to making paper cutouts which became a whole new phase of his art. His purpose was to bring beauty to the world through his art. The form of his art changed, but his driving purpose had not.

Finding purpose in new directions doesn’t mean you need to suddenly become a skydiver, although who says you couldn’t? After all, Irene O-Shea started skydiving at age 100. Her purpose was to show others that seniors are never too old to take on new things that are sources of inspiration to others, and she did that. You may decide to go back to college because that would be engaging but think beyond the choice. Do it because it will be a step toward fulfilling your purpose, which might be to become a volunteer teacher at an elementary school because you want to help young people get a stronger start in life.

So be like Matisse and Don’t let barriers stop you. Even if the path you take due to changing circumstances is not what you first intended, you can always find some way to continue to fulfill your purpose. So don’t hold back. Maybe stepping out of a plane is more than you wish to do, but go find what’s right for you and take that big leap. Practice active, healthy aging. You can do this, and you will be glad you did!

Want to read more?    Try “The End of Old Age:  Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life” by Dr. Marc Agronin, 2018.

If you missed Healthy Aging Part One – Change, you can read it on our website blog under News and Resources at