The Power of Purpose

Everyone hopes for a happy, healthy retirement. But how, exactly, do you start on this path — especially when you may have 30-plus years to fill with … what? That will likely be the first major question even for the best-planned, long-anticipated retirements. Then there are the traps and quagmires — including depression, alcohol abuse, and social isolation — that you’ll want to avoid. The answer to both issues is to have a purpose in life. 

Scientists are finding that having a sense of purpose is key to well-being as we age. In a JAMA Network Open study published in May 2019, University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers followed nearly 7,000 individuals over 50 years old and found that a “stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality.” Those who scored highest on a scale that measured “life purpose” were less likely to die during the four-year study period, and “purpose” proved to be more indicative of longevity than gender, race, or education levels.

Dr. Robert Butler of the National Institute on Aging also found a correlation between having a sense of purpose and longevity. In an NIH-funded study published December 2014 in The Gerontologist, he found that individuals who expressed that they had something to get up for in the morning lived longer and were sharper than those who didn’t.

So, how do you find your purpose?

Victor J. Strecher, a professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, is an expert on this topic. He offers a five-step tool kit through his organization, Kumanu, which he founded to help people find and live their purpose every day. He suggests starting this way:

Step 1: Answer these questions:

  • What matters most? 
  • Who relies on you? 
  • Who inspires you? 
  • What causes do you care about? 
  • What are you grateful for? 
  • What gets you out of the bed in the morning? 
  • How do you want to be remembered?  

Step 2: Deeply reflect on these questions, then synthesize your answers. The overlapping areas reveal your purpose. 

Step 3: Put your purpose into “be” statements starting with “I want to be…” For example: “I want to be active.”

Step 4: Underpin your “be” statements with “do” statements. For example: to “be” active, I need to “do” exercise.

Step 5: Now, “do” what you want to “be”. 

This is just one way to think about how to lead a purposeful life during retirement. Your priorities might change over time, so it’s a good idea to re-ask yourself these questions occasionally; especially if you’re feeling lost or off-track. Prior to retirement, you likely spent a lot of time doing what was best for other people; finding your purpose will allow you to focus on what is most valuable to you.

You can take Dr. Stretcher’s class Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life on Coursera.

Throughout the “Top Priorities” section of this blog, we will provide data-backed insights for a long, active retirement.


  1. Anonymous says:


  2. Itís hard to find knowledgeable people for this topic, but you seem like you know what youíre talking about! Thanks

  3. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you should write more on this subject matter, it may not be a taboo matter but usually people dont discuss these issues. To the next! Many thanks!!

  4. Natalie Diller says:

    There is so much that rings true in this article. Helping others is an often overlooked way to lighten up your spirit and feel alive. I’ve been a mentor for an organization that helps first generation students, starting in 4th grade. They’re always looking for tutors, mentors, and other volunteers, much of it can be done on Zoom. Here’s a link

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