New research shows that a sense of purpose in life is important for midlife and older adults, not just for kids.

My youngest will be going off to college next fall, meaning I’ll soon be an empty nester. After having raised my kids for the last 22 years or so, a large part of my purpose in life will leave along with my son.

I know I’m not alone in feeling both sad and panicky about this big shift—a lot of other people face similar feelings. We wonder what life will be like and what we will do with ourselves once our kids have flown the coop.

One possibility is to renew our sense of purpose.

Having a purpose in life means caring deeply about a goal that you are willing to work toward achieving—often to help others or affect the world in some positive, productive way. Researchers like Kendall Bronk and educators like Patrick Cook-Deegan have done a lot to understand how we foster a sense of purpose in adolescents.

But what about older people like me? Do we need a sense of purpose, or should we just sit back and enjoy life? For young adults, the world and their possibilities seem wide open—college students embark on a career path, and young parents start their families. How do we find a sense of purpose after we’ve had the career and raised our children?

Though purpose may seem like it belongs to the realm of younger people, evidence is mounting that having a purpose is important throughout one’s lifespan. Researchers are finding strong associations between having a purpose in life in adulthood and better physical health and well-being down the road. Their findings point to the need to foster purpose in older adults, especially in those who may find themselves adrift after children move away or post-retirement.

Not only could encouraging a new purpose in life result in happier, healthier midlife adults, it could motivate older adults to use their gifts for the greater good—thereby benefitting us all.

Why older adults need a sense of purpose

The physical benefits of a sense of purpose are well-documented, says Eric Kim of Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Using data from the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan, he and his colleagues have found that people who report higher levels of purpose at one point in time have objectively better physical agility four years later than those who report less purpose. There is even a “dose response”—meaning, for every jump in purpose scores, people were 13-14 percent less likely to experience physical declines in grip strength and walking speed.

Though initially skeptical that purpose could have this kind of an impact, Kim is now convinced otherwise.

“It’s very interesting to see how this construct of purpose—which has long been discussed by philosophers and theologians—is associated with all of these benefits,” Kim says. “It’s not counterintuitive to me anymore; though it is when I present this kind of research to cardiologists or other scientists.”

Patrick Hill of Washington University’s Purpose, Aging, Transitions, and Health Laband his colleagues have also found important advantages for more purposeful adults, including better cognitive functioning and greater longevity. They’re more likely to floss their teeth, exercise, and get to the doctor.

“Perhaps because people with purpose have an overall outlook regarding the importance of their goals in life, they take care of themselves better,” Kim suggests.


There’s probably something else going on, too, says Hill. He points to an unpublished study where researchers monitored people daily to see how stressful events in their lives affected their stress levels. Those people who reported having a higher sense of purpose felt significantly less stress and anxiety after a stress-filled day than other participants—a finding supported by other studies on purpose and decreased stress reactivity.

“If you have a day in which you experience a stressful event, maybe those stress events aren’t influencing you or impacting you as much if you have a purpose,” he says.

Are some purposes better than others?

Does it matter what kind of purpose we pursue? The answer so far is yes—if you are older.

Hill points to a study done with college students whose goals coalesced around four different categories. On one side stood goals that aimed to help others—that is, “prosocial” goals. Others were artistic, and some were simply more self-oriented: financial goals or recognition and achievement at work. The researchers didn’t find significant differences in positive outcomes between the groups. It was just good to have a goal, no matter what it was.

“There are benefits to living a life of purpose even if it isn’t deemed to be focused on helping others beyond the self,” Hill says.

But there’s an important caveat for older adults. That same study found that students with a more prosocial purpose experienced benefits later in adulthood—namely, greater personal growth, integrity, and generativity—a marker of purpose tied to well-being. This suggests the focus of one’s purpose may indeed make a difference down the road, as you age.

Researchers at Stanford are starting to dig into that question. In a soon-to-be published study, Anne Colby and her colleagues surveyed almost 1,200 Americans in their midlife about what goals were important to them, offering choices that were focused beyond the self—like improving the lives of others, building a better community, or teaching what they’d learned to others—and choices that weren’t—like strengthening their financial situation, pursuing sports or hobbies, or continuing their education. They also measured their psychological well-being, including their levels of empathy, wisdom, generativity, gratitude, and happiness.

Next, they interviewed over a hundred representatives from the survey in depth to find out how engaged they were in pursuing those goals and the impact this had on their lives. Colby found significantly higher well-being in people who were involved in pursuing beyond-the-self goals, compared to those who were pursuing other types of goals. In other words, engaging in prosocial goals had more impact on well-being than engaging in non-prosocial goals.

“To get very high psychological well-being from being deeply engaged with others and transcending the self, that’s a well-documented impact,” says Colby. “We saw this clearly in our interviews, too: Those who were purposeful beyond the self said their lives were filled with joy and happiness.”

Colby doesn’t know whether having a beyond-the-self purpose affects physical health, though, as her study didn’t measure health changes over time. But when she asked people about their current state of health, she found that, contrary to popular belief, poor health was not a barrier to having a purpose beyond the self.

“It’s not that purpose makes no difference to health,” says Colby. “But people whose health was not good for different reasons were still able to be purposeful.”


While her results on well-being sound promising, they are not Colby’s main concern. She believes it’s important to study beyond-the-self purpose so we can understand how to engage people in caring about others and the common good—not because it makes someone happier or healthier.

“The fortunate thing is that you don’t have to choose between sacrificing yourself to make the world a better place and well-being,” says Colby. “In fact, it’s the opposite: You gain and the rest of the world gains at the same time.”

How to foster purpose in midlife

While this research continues to evolve, it’s unclear whether purpose can be taught to adults in midlife or whether it develops naturally over time. But Kim suggests purpose can at least be enhanced.

He points to programs designed to increase purpose in older adults and cancer patients that have resulted in greater health and well-being. Though this research is fairly preliminary, it suggests that purpose might be enhanced through specific therapy add-ons.

Connecting people to volunteering can help build purpose, too, says Kim. He points to a study where randomly assigning older people to tutor schoolkids increased their feelings of generativity in comparison to a control group. Plus, it benefitted the students, too.

Colby agrees that volunteering can be an entryway to purpose, and says there is a lot of research supporting the benefits of volunteering, in general. However, she also warns against seeing volunteerism as a panacea.

“Sometimes volunteering can be deadening. It needs to be engaging. You have to feel you’re accomplishing something,” says Colby.

Jim Emerman, a collaborator of Colby’s, agrees. He is the former CEO of the American Society on Aging and current vice president of—an organization devoted to studying and advocating for purposeful engagement for midlife and older adults. not only helps match adults to opportunities in their communities, it also educates organizations and policy groups about what older Americans have to offer.

“Older adults are a growing population with a strong motivation and desire to actualize those feelings, to become a force for good in their community,” says Emerman. “Too often, institutions devalue them, or they’re entrenched in ideas about what old age is about and set up obstacles.”

This is particularly ironic, given how older people often have a renewed sense of freedom when their kids have left home or after they retire. They may finally be at a point where they have more time to pursue purposeful activities and find that too few value their contributions.


Emerman would like to change that.

“We found that around 31 percent of our group [from Colby’s survey] are pursuing purpose, while another 20 percent have a strong desire for purpose, but something is holding them back,” says Emerman. “That’s a lot of people who could be giving back to their community if given the right opportunity.”

How can someone find that opportunity? Often, people just need to be asked by someone they know to step up, says Emerman—but many are not asked. Their workplace goes out of business or they leave, and there’s no one there to help connect them to something else, he says.

“If supports were more widely available, it would help more people who are on the cusp of engaging with purpose do so,” he says.

Still, adults in midlife might not want to wait around until somebody figures out how they can plug in. If you’re an older adult and you long to contribute, he suggests using online resources, including, to see where your interests take you.

“The key things to think about are: What are you good at? What have you done that gave you a skill that can be used for a cause? What do you care about in your community?” says Emerman. “Those questions really help one focus.”

This article was originally published by the Greater Good Science Centre.


It’s been three months since my last confession.  As usual, many drafts have been started. Each tells the tale of an evolving story, adding new pieces to the puzzle that is ‘my new life’.  To be fair, I just had my one year-post corporate anniversary so the time will come when it all eventually sinks in but unbelievably, it is still not now.

On the whole, the past few months have been a challenging yet joyous ride.  For the most part, I have entered a positive new phase of the human experience.  An awakening of the senses; living, breathing, and present in the days and weeks.  Left alone with my thoughts for eight or nine hours a day has been confronting and increasingly comforting.  Without the noise of the norm, I have been left to motivate, entertain and provide ever-tightening boundaries for myself.  Despite my preference for rebellion in both inner and outer decision-making, there has still been areas of improvement. The monkey-mind continues to be trained in the art and practice of self-awareness.


It may come as a surprise that each weekday for the past four months, has also been a workday for me.  I struggle to contain my response when I hear the question, “So, how is unemployed life?”.  As when the anger and irrationality of my ego subsides, I am still left with a foreboding image of laziness, a choice of ease, and daytime television.  The thought disgusts me.  I cannot mask my disdain for this projected vision, whether it be shared by the questioner or not.  My laid-back nature should not be mistaken for a lifetime preference to ‘coast through’.  The thought fills me with dread.  When the enlightened, or BuzzFeed meme asks what I fear most in this life – it is undoubtedly the thought of failing to achieve the dreams and desires set before me.  The impression of stagnation makes me cringe, as though being stuck in a metaphorical pit of quicksand would quickly erode my soul before slowly taking my flesh and bones.

As for the latter and most uncomfortable thought about daytime television/ Netflix/mindless wormholes – take them all if you must.    I struggle to give them my leisure time let alone anything more.  I have no doubt that the day will come when, in Scott Ludlam’s words, I “set fire to my tv”.  I’d rather fill the space with plants and my mind with seeds of knowledge and growth.  So go on, ask away.  What the fuck am I doing all day then?

Well firstly, I try to leave the house every morning before 9:00am.  I take my laptop or a pen and paper, and I head to a variety of local establishments to plan, respond, write, create, and dream.  In tough times (yes now), I just grab a coffee.  If the credit card is feeling exceptionally generous that day, I get a meal!  The monetary cost is exponentially paid back.  This time installs some sort of routine and rhythm into my week and does wonders for my mental health.  Then, when I get home, I hit the ground running.  My day can encompass any or all of the following:

1. Choose Life Activities: a more frequent approach to exercise, domestic duties, sorting out health and plans and insurances and well, you know, life stuff.

2. Mastering the Masters: yes, school’s back post-summer.  The workload is back in full force and the initiation of a group assignment to re-enter the semester ensures no room for loafers.  On the plus side, one unit to go before they hand over my Grad Cert in Marketing then onwards and upwards towards the big cheese – Master of None Marketing.

3. EQ for EC: that’s emotional intelligence for early childhood.  No time to stall, I’ve had an idea.  Media is the best way to share a message quickly.  Instead of trying to implement programs in schools – spread the good word through books!  I’ve joined forces with an amazing illustrator and together, I think we just might make some epic magic happen.  27 emotions – 27 books – we’re coming for you!

4. Ontwerp Huis x Consulting: focussing in on business and brand strategy for SMEs has been a dream.  I thoroughly enjoy this work, I’m good at it, and the variety of clients and projects keeps me interested and excited.  I work directly with my own clients and indirectly through contracting with other agencies to work on bigger client portfolios.  My time can be spent across clients meetings, creating business strategies, constructing brand identities, conducting market research, segmenting and positioning, optimising target markets and personas, attending design workshops, pulling my sleeves up in production, goal setting, range optimisation, business development, and multiple miscellaneous tasks that come through the door with lots of potential.

im on it

5. Ontwerp Huis x The Brand: When I’m not working ‘in’ the business, I am getting better at working ‘on’ the business.  It’s ironic that I struggle the same amount as my clients with this, given that it is the general task on which I assist them with. The old adage that it is easier to give advice than to take it, rings true. I have clarified my business offering though I have no doubt that this will continue to evolve, as it should.  The next crucial step is sales time! Communicate, increase brand awareness, get back to finishing the website, sharing the one-pager, and focussing on my target market. That is, SMEs in Melbourne and Perth who work predominantly in service industries across hospitality and retail.  There is also the future potential to assist early-stage startups with their viability and development.  Despite its lack of immediate rewards, I know that this time spent in business development will continue to open new doors, broaden my client base, and increase my chances of long term profitability. Bring that shit on.

*The hurdle in this game is that when I’m not ‘officially’ working with a client – I DON’T GET PAID.  Gone are the days of a stable hourly rate that continues despite coffee breaks, long lunches, distracted hours, mindless meetings, and dusty days.  No work = no pay.

I had a great run over the Nov-Dec-Jan period to be fair.  Work flowed in from a number of different clients, filling the weeks with targeted purpose and helping inflate the gaunt-looking back pocket.  I’ve never been so bloody stoked with every single dollar earnt.  I did the math for this period of work and it equated to one month’s salary in my corporate job.  Don’t tell me I’m not making sacrifices ha!  The last six weeks have been confronting.  All projects have simultaneously wound up, and I’ve been left to stare down the barrel of a number of negative bank balances.  It’s uncomfortable though not completely unfamiliar.  I am grateful for the time it has given me to take stock of my direction, a gift that is not often awarded.

The current pain points, financially and emotionally, stem from the inability to sell our property in Western Australia (yes – still!).  Our tenants moved out a month ago which coincided perfectly with my work drying up.  It has left us in the uncomfortable position of trying to pay two mortgages on one income.  And though our heads are barely above water, a roof continues to bare cover so it is with ongoing hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. No limbs have been lost, and my headspace for perspective is as vast as it is, perhaps, naive.

I continue to be the king [because fuck gender roles] of the side hustle.  It weaves and wanes but we try to keep at least one going at all times.  Until we undo this diddle we’re in, it’s game faces – on.  Here’s the prognosis:

1. Airbnb Accommodation: basic math.  2 nights hosting = 1/2 to a full days wage.  Yes, I’m over the constant washing loads, linen changes, sharing our space, and entertaining on check-in.  But right now, the reward exceeds the inconvenience.

2. Ontwerp Huis x Coworking: the space remains physically ready to go though I have decided to ask for permission, not forgiveness.  The weight of risk, liability and people’s safety suddenly dawned on me.  So, the insurance is ready to go as soon as I get the body corp’s thumbs up.  I stall here due to a combination of reality, fear of rejection, and those goddamn phone demons.  There is also a teeny, tiny part of me that has entertained the thought of selling this very apartment.  The one that the coworking space is set up to go in, the one that we host people from around the world in, the one that puts a roof over our heads, the one that we call ‘home’.  The local market is ripe and offers a stark contrast to its west coast compatriot.  A guaranteed sale and decent profit provide an ever so tempting proposition for someone who has time to consider it.  The mirage rightfully clears when Wes asks, “but where would we live?”.  It’s a reasonable question.


3. Airbnb Experiences: the Beer + Bites tour.  Despite my continued love of beer, eating, and socialising – charming a crowd for three to four hours straight is completely exhausting.  Like, really taxing.  It gnaws at the very core of my more introverted self.  Most people are a complete and utter delight who fill me with wonderous world knowledge about places like Panama and South Korea.  Others are much needier and require a full performance in exchange for their five-star review.  So far, the effort and energy requirement has not met the reward. I have taken a month off, unsure if I will return or not.  Thanks be to the venues who participated, if you are a Melbourne local or visitor, I implore you to walk your own path from Thunder Road Brewery to Temple Brewery to The Alehouse Project.  You’re in for a real treat.

4.  Sell the Fucking Lot: minimalism 101.  I continue to sell or donate many of our belongings.  And it continues to amaze and reward in so many ways.  I’m not sure why having more time and headspace has diluted my hoarding nature, but it has.  I am literally breaking apart 20 years of collection and storage.  Things I’ve saved for a later date, for that elusive ‘one day’, for an infinite amount of time in a finite world.  What’s it all for?  What use is it to me on shelves, in sheds, out of sight?  I’m uncovering things I haven’t looked at or used in years, decades even.  The letting go process clears the head, cupboards, and pathway should we need to move at pace to the next opportunity or adventure.

take it all

Anyhoo.  It’s that time of the post when I get bored with my own thoughts.  Thanks for reading, it’s been another cathartic brain dump.  So, cheerio. Look after yourself, and each other.

Bye for now,
ZB x