At age 62, Julie Andrews lost her singing voice. The removal of a cyst irreparably damaged her vocal cords, costing The Sound of Music star her ability to make the sound of music. Deprived of the skill that drove her professional success—and even though she was nearing an age when many people tend to call it a career—Andrews instead found an entirely new challenge. Together with her daughter, she coauthored more than 20 children’s books, including the best-seller The Very Fairy Princess.
Sadly, in their later years, many people end up feeling uninspired, unneeded and, often, unhealthy—regardless of the degree of success they had during the first half of their lives. What these people don’t realize is that regardless of what they achieved or failed to achieve when they were young, they are now well-positioned to do their most important work. The experience, skills, resources and influence they spent decades accumulating can be shared with the people and causes they care about most—and, as a bonus, doing this can keep them healthy as they age.
Well-known author and businessman Stephen R. Covey developed a philosophy for the latter decades of life that meshed well with Andrews’s approach—whatever your age…whatever your health and professional circumstances…always assume that your most important work lies ahead of you. Embracing this positive-minded, forward-moving crescendo credo helps life maintain its excitement and purpose—and in the process, it fosters good health.
A study involving more than 43,000 elderly Japanese people found that those who practiced ikigai—a philosophy of developing positive purpose and a sense of satisfaction—were significantly less likely to die during the following seven years than those who did not. Other researchers have found links between being motivated to achieve a purpose and reduced rates of depression…and between believing one’s life has meaning and lower rates of cancer and heart disease.
These health benefits likely are, in part, a result of the social nature of living with purpose. People who feel driven to achieve important things tend to have robust social networks full of other people who share their passion and/or whom they are trying to assist. A review of 148 prior studies on this subject conducted by researchers at BYU concluded that there’s a very significant link between having strong social relationships and longevity.
Yes, it’s true that caring deeply about something also can bring stress—but despite what many people believe, stress is not a killer. One study by Stanford University researchers that tracked participants for more than eight decades—from childhood until death—concluded that carefree people tend to die sooner than those who push themselves to reach goals. The moderate stress that might come from pushing oneself to do something meaningful is more likely to extend your life than shorten it.
When we imagine ways to live with purpose in the second half of life, we often picture volunteering or donating to charity…or mentoring younger people. Those are excellent ideas, but they’re not the only ways to live life in crescendo. Less obvious options include…
Reframe setbacks and challenges as an opportunity to find your “why.” The second half of life often brings health and personal challenges. Define yourself by your proactive responses to those challenges, not by the challenges themselves. Examples: Someone who has been diagnosed with a serious health problem might resolve to respond with hope and positivity to send a message to his descendants and peers that they can remain positive in the face of challenges. Or this person might research the potential treatments for the health issue, then find purpose in providing sound guidance to fellow patients about which treatments are worth pursuing and which are snake oil.
Seek to bless…not to impress. Many people focus on fluffing their own feathers during the first half of their lives—they think appearing impressive to the world is what proves their worth. But during the second half of life, most people find it easier to see beyond their own egos—and that allows them to discover the greater fulfillment that comes from helping other people discover their worth.
Ways to do this: Become a mentor in the conventional sense, providing professional or personal guidance over an extended period of time, but that’s not the only option. You also could ask yourself, Which of the people in my life would benefit from having someone believe in them? This might be one of your grandkids—or someone else—who is having a hard time finding his/her way.
Create meaningful memories with your family. People who reflect on what matters most in their lives often conclude that the answer is the happiness and success of their closest loved ones. Your family might benefit from your assistance with specific challenges, but don’t overlook another path that can lead to family-related fulfillment—spending time together. Arrange family dinners, holiday gatherings, camping trips or anything else that will create pleasant memories.
Be the transition person for your family or community. If no one in your family has ever graduated from college, be the one who returns to school and does so. If no one in your community takes pride in the appearance of Main Street, be the one who picks up litter along the roadside. Even if your efforts don’t add up to much on their own, your example shows the people around you that they have the option of following your lead.
Stephen Covey, best-selling author of classic business books including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was working with his daughter Cynthia on a book about maximizing the second half of life—the decades often spent in retirement—when he experienced the biking accident that led to his death. Cynthia recently completed the project.