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Searching for Contentment in Second Half of Life

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: As a successful engineer, program manager and expert witness, I have always experienced excitement and pleasure from work throughout my life.  This past January, as a 70-year old woman, I decided to take a sabbatical (also known as retirement) from my consulting practice.  It has taken me eight months to clear my desk.  I have yet to find anything that brings me a sense of purpose, pleasure and excitement.  Where do I begin?       

Answer: It sounds as though you are looking for that “something” that brings you rewards similar to those you enjoyed during your career.  The quest for purpose, meaning and passion is not easy.  Maybe these eight months have given you time to take care of the odds and ends that have been on the “to do” list.

Assuming they are accomplished, the logical question is “what’s next?”

You may be in that in-between limbo zone – a perfect time for opportunity and change.  We’ve heard of teachable moments.  There are also actionable moments when a person is ready to focus, be reflective and explore something new and take a few risks.

Much has been recently written about finding meaning and purpose in the second half of life.  Part of this conversation is a victory.   In the late 20th century, what to do in your 50s, 60s and 70s was a moot point, since average life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years.  Essentially, you worked and then exited the Earth.

Today average life expectancy at birth is 78 years.  And if you are a man and live until 65, on average you have about 17 years ahead of you if you are a man, about 20 if you are a woman.  Note that’s average.  And the fastest growing segment of the population is the 85-plus.  Living to be 100 is increasingly becoming a reality.

Add to this, we are the most educated and healthiest generation in history, wanting to live even a better life in the second half.

One might wonder, why bother with notions of purpose and meaning in retirement during a negative economy?  Some of our nest eggs have lost 30 percent of their value, our 401(k)’s have plummeted and other investments have diminished.

A recent report issued by the Mature Market Institute of MetLife challenges conventional wisdom.

The study explored what brings contentment to those in the second half of life.   Based on interviews of 1,000 Americans between 45 and 74, the study debunked three myths: The good life equals material wealth; happiness is the absence of misfortune; and the good life equals more of everything. None proved to be supported in the study.

The final result:  “Meaning trumped money for those seeking the good life.”

And what is the good life?  According to Richard Leider, co-author of the report and a noted writer and executive coach, the good life means “living in the place you belong, with people you love and doing work that benefits others – on purpose.”

The big question is how to find one’s purpose?  And is there a purpose for everyone?

Leider has an interesting take on this.  He believes that each of us is born with a mission.  At birth we suffer amnesia.  We then spend the better part of a lifetime “remembering” why we are on this planet. The implication is that each of us can find what is important in our lives and then live a life of meaning.

The search can take time and becomes more important as we age for good reason.

During the first half of life, our purpose is well-defined by family responsibilities, work demands, earning a living and community commitments. Then there is the empty nest, for some retirement and the realization we are mortal.  Finding purpose and meaning become more pressing and important as we think about our legacy, our handprint and how we want to be remembered.

Ken Dychtwald, gerontologist and author of “With Purpose:  Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life” (Collins Living 2009), developed a term – “middlescence.”  Just as adolescence covers the period between childhood and adulthood, middlesence covers the period between adulthood and old age – from about age 50 to 75.  It is considered a time of productivity and engagement.

Dychtwald notes that retirement is no longer a retreat or withdrawal, but a time to reboot, re-engage and “find new ways to apply our skills and tackle old problems as you infuse purpose into the many years before you.” He suggests that reflection is more art than science.

So where to begin?

James E. Birren, founder and first dean of USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center, has often said, “You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

Here is an exercise developed by Dychtwald that will help you reflect on where you’ve been.  It’s a way to identify values and what has been exciting and meaningful for you during adulthood and youth.

Step 1: “List the meaningful and exciting moments from your adult life, from 18 years to the present.”  Categorize them into family, work and other areas such as spiritual life and social relationships.

I recently used this approach in conducting a retirement seminar sponsored by the USC Emeriti Center for soon-to-retiree or retired faculty and staff.  Here are some examples of their replies just to Step 1:

Meaningful family responses included the birth of a child, taking a special family vacation and meeting one’s future husband.  Work life conjured up exciting moments of promotions, staffing a senate committee in Washington, D.C. and getting a position at the USC medical school.  And the last category stimulated memories of connecting to one’s faith and having fabulous friends.

Step 2: “List the meaningful and exciting moments you can recall from your youth.”

Step 3: “Identify three people whom you admire and what makes (or made) them special. Do certain characteristics appear often?

OK, now, what do these recollections say about you and what is important, meaningful and exciting?  For example are there themes about friendships, family, achievements, discovery, creativity, leadership, kindness, being bold?    These may be clues to the kind of experiences you want in this next chapter of life.

Yet there is more to do.  Richard Leider and David Shapiro, co-authors of “Something to Live For:  Find your Way in the Second Half of Life” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2008) suggest we all need an “Annual Purpose Checkup” just like we need an annual physical check up.

Here are statements from the checkup; answer yes or no.

  • “I work at what I love to do.”
  • “My daily choices are driven by a strong sense of purpose.”
  • “I am wholehearted and authentic in my actions.”
  • “There is a clear alignment between what I say my priorities are and how I spend my time.”
  • “I invest time in making a difference to others in the world.”
  • “I put my whole self into all that I do.”
  • “I know what I want to be remembered for.”

For each yes, what do you have to do to sustain that sense of meaning?  What changes can you make to find more meaning?  And, whom can you speak with to deepen your understanding and appreciation for what is meaningful in your life?

Hopefully these tools will help you discover some purpose for this in between life stage.

On a light note, the late Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” is quoted as saying, “My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?”

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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