It should come as no surprise that, in large part, the United States is a nation of workaholics. According to a recent study, American workers average 11 vacation days per year, with 41% of them admitting they do not even take all of their available vacation time. In addition, 83% confess to doing work-related activities while on vacation. 

In contrast to a workforce that is figuratively starving for leisure time, retirees are almost drowning in it. Researchers estimate that older adults average 7.5 hours of leisure time per day.

This year alone, American retirees will collectively enjoy 126 billion hours of leisure time. Unfortunately, there is evidence that older adults may not be using their leisure time in meaningful or productive ways.

For example, the Nielsen Total Audience Report for the first quarter of 2019 concludes that adults over the age of 65 watch television an average of 7.25 hours each day.

Retirement Must Be Purposeful

In 1976, Dr. Robert Butler published his book, “Why Survive? Being Old in America”, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The book was based on years of research that Dr. Butler and his team conducted on subjects who were between the ages of 65 and 92 years old.

One of the conclusions Dr. Butler reached – based on multiple studies – is that people who have a strong sense of purpose live longer lives than those who don’t. Not only do they live longer, but they enjoy a higher quality of life than those who do not have a clearly defined purpose. 

Subsequent studies have confirmed Dr. Butler’s conclusions. Specifically, purposeful living has been linked to multiple aspects of wellbeing, including living a longer life, having better physical function, decreasing the risk of disease, facilitating better sleep, and encouraging healthy behaviors. 

Unfortunately, more than 70 studies now demonstrate that an individual’s sense of purpose tends to decline over time. The pattern emerging from these studies is that an individual’s sense of purpose peaks during young adulthood, declines during middle adulthood, and then drops sharply through late adulthood.  

Finding a Purpose on Purpose

For many, a busy career is not just a key part of their self-image; it is also an important aspect of their purpose in life. For these people, retirement brings with it new challenges, including a decline in self-esteem and a loss of direction.

Age specialists have recently identified a new stage of life – gerentolescence – which they note is a sort of second adolescence. The term refers to those between the ages of 50 and 75 who are using this period of their lives as a renewed journey of self-discovery for what the French call their raison d’etre – their reason for being. 

Attorney Greg Bishop suggests that retirement is an important opportunity to re-calibrate both self-image and purpose. He explains that the Japanese have a similar concept for the purpose of life – ikigai – which is comprised of the words iki (meaning life) and gai (meaning value or worth). With no direct English translation, ikigai is often rendered as “the thing that you live for” or the “thing that gets you up in the morning.”

Those in Western society who are familiar with ikigai often associate it with the center of a Venn diagram of four overlapping conceptual circles: what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for.

But to the Japanese, ikigai has little if anything to do with getting paid. Rather, as Dan Buettner (author of Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest) suggests, ikigai is the intersection of your values, the things you like to do, and the things you are good at.

Call it what you will – your purpose in life, your raison d’etre, your ikigai – retirement is the perfect opportunity to identify and cultivate those things that bring you happiness and make your existence meaningful.

To some, it will be starting that novel they always wanted to write. To others, it will mean putting their energy and passion in helping others. To others still, it will mean training for and completing their first marathon.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what it is that provides meaning for your life, only that you have it. As Richard Leider, the author of The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better, put it: “Purpose is fundamental. Mattering, ultimately, matters.” 

About Greg Bishop, Attorney

Greg Bishop is a results-oriented executive experienced in managing the legal, compliance, and HR functions of private and public companies. Professionally, he is best known for building strong teams that ensure company success. Personally, he is passionate about the outdoors – he enjoys mountain biking, traveling, and hiking, and strives to share this passion for life with others.