Every day, some 10,000 baby boomers reach the age of 65. We do so in a society that offers little in the way of a truly empowering vision for life’s later chapters. With no societally honored role for older adults, finding meaning and purpose is a challenge for many of us as we reach “retirement age.” If our goal is to thrive as elders, it is critical that we understand how to do so, rather than merely drifting into old age hoping for the best. It is possible for us to age intentionally, with a sense of the rich possibilities that lie before us and of the choices we have about how our lives unfold in life’s “Third Chapter.” In this article I shall present five keys to doing so.
Perhaps most importantly, it is vital that our lives be grounded in a deep belief in the possibility of having a happy and meaningful life as we age. To do so, we must be totally honest with ourselves about our beliefs, and work to root out any that stand in the way of us acknowledging our beauty, gifts, significance, and ability to make a difference in this world in whatever circumstances life presents us. In a society obsessed with youth, it is so easy for older adults to internalize the message that growing older necessarily means becoming marginalized, with our years of fulfillment and contribution largely behind us. Thankfully, if we look around us we will see more and more older adults not buying into such messages, and choosing to use their wisdom and talents to make a difference in their communities and find fulfillment through doing so.
Living fully, joyfully, peacefully, and in the present moment as we age requires us to be aware of that which binds us to a past which no longer exists.
This requires honoring our past—who we have been, what we have done—and being willing to release our identification with that, so we may fully embrace who we are now and what brings us alive now, with an eye to our future but primarily a deep savoring of each precious moment.
The world’s spiritual traditions are joined with contemporary research in telling us that happiness and inner peace absolutely depend on having a purpose that guides us through each day. Some teachers speak of purpose as having two dimensions. At the macro level, purpose is living each day with a commitment to growing and serving, and using each encounter we have as an opportunity to somehow grow and serve. At the micro level, purpose for many people is having that special reason to get up in the morning that is larger than ourselves. This special reason is an expression of our unique self and our gifts that in some way helps make this world a better place.
I don’t think it’s possible to have a happy and meaningful life in isolation. Yes, as we age many of us feel called to more time alone savoring our own company. But we need community to grow, share, learn, and provide opportunities for service.
The community I speak of is not just having a lot of people around us. It is having some kindred spirits with whom we can authentically share ourselves—our aspirations, our fears, our challenges, our understandings—and see ourselves through the mirror of relationship.
As social beings, people cannot really know ourselves through introspection alone. It is through our relationships that we learn who we are and what meaningful role we can play as we live our elder chapters.
And here’s a fifth element.
In order to truly thrive as we age, we must cultivate the life-enhancing energy of passion. We must aim for full-body, mind, and spirit aliveness.
We can’t be numb and be happy. Cultivating this passion requires making the choice each day to eliminate from our life those things that sap our energy and tend to numb us out. We all have people, addictions, habits, and time-fillers that are energy drains. By making the choice to gradually replace these with people, activities, images, and practices that enhance our experience of aliveness, we grow into becoming more passionate people. Passion finds its natural expression in happiness, purpose, meaning, and optimism.