Purpose development may have less to do with age and more to do with changing life circumstances.
Purpose is a meaningful life aim you engage in intentionally that has a beyond-the-self-impact (Damon, Menon & Bronk, 2003). It is generally expected that by the time a person reaches adulthood, they have formed an identity and, with it, a purpose in life (Erikson, 1968). After our mid-20s, the less we search for purpose in life (Bronk et al., 2009; Steger, Oishi, & Kashdan, 2009).
But age is not the only factor. People searching for purpose past adulthood may experience major life events that young people typically don’t encounter, such as retirement, widowhood, death of a parent, menopause, and so on. These events can make searching for purpose more difficult, since they may impair traits that can aid purpose development, such as a sense of hope, personal efficacy, and curiosity about the world (Bronk et al., 2009; DeWitz, Woolsey, & Walsh, 2009; Kashdan & Steger, 2007). For example, newly retired people, at first, may feel at a loss since contributing to society through labor has ended.
There are many ways that older people can counteract the effects of changing life conditions on purpose. Forming strong social ties, such as supportive family and friends, may help motivate them back onto the path of purpose development (Pinquart, 2002). Additionally, finding other work or volunteering after retirement may spark curiosity and a new way to contribute to society (Gonzalez, Hetero & Extremera, 2010).
By Despoina Lioliou, Clark University
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