A job is probably the easiest way to help you feel your life has purpose, so consider staying with it as long as you can, says Robert N. Butler, M.D., founding director of the National Institute on Aging and author of The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life (Public Affairs, 2008). Even if your job is not the greatest, Butler notes, “accomplishment—and, most important, income—can provide an ongoing sense of purpose.” But there's more. A European study that tracked 16,827 Greek men and women for 12 years found that those who retired early had a 51 percent higher mortality rate than those who kept working. And according to a 2005 study that followed 3,500 Shell Oil employees, those who retired at 55 were twice as likely to die during the next ten years as people the same age who continued to work.
Take stock of yourself
If you're struggling to bring your purpose into view, Richard Leider, life coach and author of Something to Live For: Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life (Barrett-Koehler, 2008), suggests making a list of what you consider your gifts, values, and passions, then identifying your top quality in each category. Together, he says, the three can help reveal your calling—a formula he describes as G+V+P=C. Chopra says he leads his clients in a similar exercise that includes questions such as: How do I feel when I have a peak experience? What are my unique skills? Who are my heroes throughout history? If I had all the money and time in the world, how would I use my talents to serve humanity? Then he takes his clients through silent meditation, and often, he says, because of “correlations that take place in the subconscious,” they achieve some clarity and insight.
Another approach is to journal. Gregory A. Plotnikoff, M.D., medical director for Abbott Northwestern's Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis, says this can be especially effective after a major life change that leaves you feeling lost. “When a spouse dies, you retire, or your kids leave home, you interrupt your personal story,” he says. If you can figure out how this episode fits into the plot of your life, you'll be one step closer to seeing its purpose—and yours. Plotnikoff suggests writing in a journal for a few days, at least 30 minutes a day, about crucial events in your life and how they made you feel. “Discovering purpose is like uncovering patterns,” he says. “If you understand the first chapters of your life, you're in a better position to write the next chapters. We all need to be part of a bigger story.”
Find your flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, spent most of his 40-year academic career studying quality of life and enjoyment. He believes we find fulfillment in activities that develop a skill, challenge us, and provide ongoing feedback. He calls this “flow.” “Mountain climbers have an easy goal: to get to the top. But getting to the top is not the purpose,” explains Csikszentmihalyi. “Real climbers are not that interested in the top. They take two pictures and come back down. What makes mountain climbing purposeful is the challenge with each step—focusing attention, seeing what you’re doing right and wrong with each step. You have to be able to see that if you've taken ten steps, you are a little higher up.”
Csikszentmihalyi thinks a good way to find flow is to think about what you've always wanted to do but thought you couldn't—ideally something you really care about. It could be researching your heritage, working on a community quilt, building model trains. Like climbing a mountain, purposeful activity should engage your abilities and require effort.