There is a lot of research now showing that having a sense of meaning or purpose is linked to not just psychological benefits, but also to physical health and even to longevity. Part of the meaning we experience in our life is linked to our sense of having a purpose (or reason) for living. Mark Zuckerberg says “purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed – that we have something better ahead to work for.” But we don’t need some major achievement – we are not all Mother Teresa! So what is meaning in life and how can we grow this aspect of our lives?
According to Professor Michael Steger, meaning involves appreciation, connection and growth. So in retirement we can appreciate what is around us and our life as we have lived it, savour our newfound extra time off, and admire our environment. This can be as simple as admiring the garden in our own backyard, or visiting a spot of beauty whether it is a National Park, art gallery, museum or travel destination. We can also find meaning in our connection to others, by being there for our friends and family when they need us and by building new friendships and community connections (e.g. through joining a club or volunteering). We can build on our existing skills, and experiment with learning new ones (a new craft, new language, new directions for using the skills we developed in our career), as well as growing in our everyday roles whether it is as a partner, friend and/or grandparent.
There are thus many ways to build our sense of meaning in life, and lift our wellbeing and that of those around us. As the Dalai Lama said “our prime purpose in life is to help others, and if we can’t help them, then at least don’t hurt them.”
Dr Sue Ferguson is an Honorary Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University.