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Aging and Reimagining Purpose

man at table in contemplation

Having a clear sense of purpose is like having a beacon of light to help you move confidently in the direction you’d like to travel. Purpose is what motivates action on a day-to-day basis as well as into the future, and while it remains a constant part of life throughout its varying seasons, purpose can also change in scope and meaning over time.

Sometimes purpose can be found in raising children or in doing a job you love, but when the purpose in those life chapters is fulfilled, you might find yourself asking “What now?” or “What next?” These common questions crop up at transitions times, and in those moments, it’s important to reimagine a new sense of purpose to propel you in a positive direction.

What’s Purpose in the First Place?

Purpose is what gives our lives meaning, and it’s what moves us to act. But purpose is different from a goal in that it is often greater in scope and usually less precise. Perhaps you might find purpose in caring for a sick spouse or a friend. That purpose might motivate you to set goals such as cooking meals, accompanying your friend or spouse to appointments, or offering reminders to take medications. While those goals can be measured by simply answering whether or not you completed the task, the underlying purpose is not always easy to quantify. Values such as compassion, kindness, or loyalty can guide an overall purpose, which can vary according to each person’s belief system.

An overall purpose reflects your values about life. It brings a commitment beyond the physical, day-to-day tasks and reflects your mental and spiritual self. And while purpose might not be as easy to measure as a goal, it can be a very powerful thing, so powerful in fact that it can affect your overall health.

Reimagining Purpose: Why and How

If you have been wondering about your life’s purpose, then you’re in a prime position for imagining how a new purpose can infuse your life with meaning. Purpose can be found in caring for a sick friend or spouse, as in the previous example, but if care for that person shifts to someone else, or if that person passes away, you’ll likely face the “What now?” or “What next?” questions that signal time for a purpose shift. Transitional times such as these can present the opportunity for you to imagine a new set of possibilities.

But how do you actually reimagine purpose? First, allow yourself time to move through the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of the transition from one purpose to the next. Feelings of sadness, loss, grief, or despair are not unusual following a loss, so acknowledge those feelings. Share feelings, thoughts, and concerns with family members, medical providers, or trained therapists in order to help you develop positive ways of coping.

Next, embrace the idea that a new, positive purpose is possible, and be proactive in identifying it. Since purpose is as unique as you are, a number of different methods exist for determining purpose. If quiet time helps you develop new ideas, then consider going on a retreat to a place where you can dedicate yourself to personal contemplation. But if you find inspiration by sharing ideas with others, then consider inviting close family or friends to join you in a focused discussion. Ultimately, reimagining purpose is a personal process, but the following successful strategies can help you within a framework that best suits your personality and interests:

RECORD your thought process in writing. Write down your ideas so that you can revise, develop, and revisit them. Writing can help you see how your ideas grow into actions, and it can also help remind you of your most important intentions.

FOCUS on identifying core values and beliefs before you turn your thoughts toward developing a new purpose. Take the time to revisit these essentials since purpose often grows out of a desire to express basic values and beliefs. In this phase, list the things that matter the most to you at this time in your life, and also list the values and beliefs that you would like to remain a part of your future. Consider ranking your values or identifying the most important ones so that you can focus on developing these into your reimagined purpose in the next steps.

DEVELOP purpose by identifying meaningful ways to express your core values and beliefs. Ask yourself: What actions or activities could I do to put my beliefs into action? In answering this question, purpose takes shape and acts as a bridge that connects your core values with the things that allow you to express them. Don’t limit yourself in this phase; begin by listing all activities, actions, or expressions that could allow you to connect with the principles you’ve identified as the most important.

CONSIDER all aspects of your life that a new purpose could involve including people, locations, jobs, hobbies, finances, heath, recreation, and others. At this stage, pay attention to purpose-filled ideas that excite you, and look for themes that may be emerging across many areas of your life.

DREAM about the multiple ways you can enact your purpose. It’s ok to imagine far-fetched possibilities. If you find yourself excited by the idea of spending a season in a place you’ve never been to explore local culture or cuisine, don’t rule it out. Taking time to dream can help open your mind to new possibilities and inspire you with new purposes to consider.

PLAN out a timeframe and other logistics for putting a new purpose into action. Choose a realistic purpose to consider, as finances, location, health, travel, and other considerations will need to be addressed to ensure the feasibility of your plans. This planning phase requires you to be realistic, time-driven, factual, and logical so that the new purpose you’ve been dreaming about can take shape in the real world, right now.

ENLIST others in your plans. Even if you’re the type of person who wants to do the work of reimagining purpose on your own, sharing what you’ve discovered with close family members or friends can help an imagined purpose move from the dream phase into a powerful reality. Share with others the core values and beliefs that motivate your new choices and actions, and also share with them your realistic plans for enacting the new purpose you’ve imagined.

REFLECT on progress as you begin taking steps to put your new purpose into action. Reconsider your core values and beliefs, and evaluate whether or not your actions are allowing you to express them. Revisit your notes, and go through the process as many times as necessary until you’re able to identify a purpose that truly excites you and adds meaning to your daily actions.

These strategies can help you develop a framework for imagining a new purpose and to successfully negotiate a transitional time, but they may only be the beginning of an ongoing transformation. Once you’ve committed reimagining purpose, you’ll find that many resources are available to help support you in your search. Libraries, community colleges, and online resources such as AARP’s Life Reimagined program can help provide some support and framework. The insights you uncover in the process will carry you confidently into the next purpose-filled phase of your life.

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