“We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.” – Carl Jung
Anyone can see that being over 70 has got to be one of the most difficult and intense periods in life. In our society, in particular, we’re fed a narrative of the good life, and the good life is “happiness.” But, as we physically fail and lose some of our social connections, this ideal shows itself as shallow and irrelevant.
“Happy? I can’t walk anymore. My husband is dead.”
Happiness is a goal for 30-somethings.
Few seem to shine a light on life’s last 1 or 2 decades. We might blame Western culture’s focus on youth, consumerism and work, but we could as easily blame our collective reluctance to embrace death.
No one wants to confront their own mortality, but this is forced upon us in old age not just because it’s a closer target, but also because older age brings stillness and contemplation. Layer in the poor health, isolation and grief as you lose peers, and it’s no wonder that late life depression, anxiety and suicide are growing issues.
But there is a less-considered factor in feeling disconnected as we age. It is our loss of purpose and greater relevancy.
Researcher and author, Daniel Pink, who studies basics of human motivation, says we get out of bed each morning to have, “the feeling and intention that we can make a difference in the world.”
Who would argue that it becomes more difficult to believe you are “making a difference in the world” when you become increasingly vulnerable and unable to work in ways that you have come to take for granted?
When you consider life in this more serious and intentional way, you can begin to see that the challenges of living well into old age go beyond avoiding physical and social limitations. Living well and aging well is really about finding new ways to contribute and find greater purpose in a way that makes a difference in the world.
While many resources have been stolen in old age, some limitations have been lifted (such as obligations to support family, people please or hoard finances). In many ways, aging well, like Jimmy Carter (who has written 22 books since age 74), can become about intentionally asking:
“How can I move the world forward in the next 5-10 years?”
“What does ‘move the world forward’ mean to me?”
“What resources do I have for accomplishing this work?”
Because you can focus on the fact that you’re immobile or you can be like this guy and learn to knit sweaters for animal rescue groups. The fact is, there is no end to the good that needs done in the world and we don’t want to be “happy.” We want to be useful. And you can be useful at any age, in real and relevant ways, despite your limitations.
In his elder years, Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected on the good life and nailed it: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”