Finding Purpose for the Long Haul
Charlotte Seigel is a tour de force. She is passionate about social work, psychiatric work in particular. She also believes in actively collaborating with colleagues to improve the field.
In fact, she has been passionate about this work for over seventy years! Charlotte is 97 years old.
Last year, Charlotte was the recipient of an award for honorary recognition for contributions in the field of clinical social work from the California Society of Clinical Social Work. For years, she worked at Stanford before starting her own practice in midlife. She continued to see patients until just a few years ago, well into her 90s. Patients would come to her retirement community for her services. She remained active in the Mid-Peninsula district California Society for Clinical Social Work and had been instrumental in bringing high-profile speakers, including Dr. Carol Dweck who has gained attention for articulating the value of the growth mindset as compared to the fixed mindset. Charlotte is a lifelong case study of the growth mindset.
In Charlotte’s words, “My social work self, my clinical self, my total being self, they are all wrapped together. There isn’t a separate clinician and separate Charlotte Siegel. It’s all a part of the definition and a part of what I am able to give to clients who come to see me – a sense of life moving for me and for them.”
Charlotte has had an integrated sense of purpose for a long time and it turns out that purpose matters a lot. It’s not happenchance that she has lived such a long and vital life.
Choosing Happiness with Purpose
Our culture is obsessed with happiness. Nearly 50% of people in the US set New Year’s resolutions, many with the aim of leading a happier life. In surveys, most people list happiness as their top value, and self-help books and life coaches are up part of a multibillion-dollar industry of happiness. It seems to work well with book titles, too: The Happiness Curve is one of the latest examples.
Part of the challenge is that we often don’t understand or fully appreciate the different definitions of happiness or life satisfaction. Going back to the days of Greek philosophers, much thought has been directed in this important area. There are two forms of well-being — hedonia, or the ancient Greek word for what behavioral scientists often call happiness, and eudaimonia, or what they call meaningfulness. The happy life is defined by seeking pleasure and enjoyment, whereas the meaningful life is bigger.
In her TED talk and recent book, The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith presents the case for choosing happiness with meaning. She points to the research that shows that the pursuit of happiness – hedonia — negatively affects our well-being and such pursuits tend to have only a brief boost in mood that soon fades. One of the most powerful examples comes from research around lottery winners. Six months after you hit the lottery the average lottery winner has permanent baseline levels that are slightly lower than they were the day before they bought the ticket.
In contrast, while life with meaning can be associated with stress, effort and struggle, it can also be more deeply satisfying and sustaining. As one example, in a recent study, researchers from the University of Ottawa followed college students and found that they behaved very differently depending on whether they emphasized meaning or self-focused happiness. Those that focused on meaning, such as helping friends, did not feel as happy right after the experiment but, over a longer period of time, reported fewer negative moods and expressed a prolonged sense of inspiration and enrichment than those focused on self-oriented happiness.
It turns out that happiness with meaning is a mindset – a choice we make – that is more valuable and sustainable than hedonistic happiness.
A Movement for Choosing Happiness with Meaning and Purpose in the Age of Longevity
Of course, living a life of satisfaction has been important since the beginning of man. What’s different now is that we are living a lot longer; thirty years longer than our contemporaries from a century ago. Charlotte Seigel is a living example of purpose sustained over the long haul.
Marc Freedman and his colleagues at Encore.org are helping create a movement of purpose. Marc is the founder and CEO of Encore.org, a not-for-profit with global influence that serves as an innovation hub tapping the talent of older people as a force for good, and one of the leading voices around embracing the opportunities for greater purpose in the age of longevity.
Earlier this year, Encore.org and Stanford, led by William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and author of The Path to Purpose, released a research report on purpose sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. This report, “Purpose in the Encore Years: Shaping Lives of Meaning and Contribution”, defined purpose as “sustained commitment to goals that are meaningful to the self and that also contribute in some way to the common good, to something larger than or beyond the self.”
In this report, they found that approximately one third of older adults they surveyed currently exhibit such purpose, representing approximately 34 million people if extrapolated to the population at large. Among other findings, they also learned that purpose was not a zero-sum game. People who place a high priority on beyond-the-self goals simultaneously endorse views of later life that embrace self-oriented activities such as continued learning and leisure, even more so than people who aren’t engaged with purpose.
Where You Live Matters with Purpose
We can’t expect where we live to automatically give our lives purpose. However, it can make a difference. As a previous Smart Living 360 blog (“On Personal Connection”) pointed out, our networks influence our well-being. If our friends’ friends are happy, we are more likely to be happy. Being around others that value purpose will naturally impact our priority on purpose.
Also, our living environments can help us up to focus on things that matter most. Living spaces that free us up from home maintenance – things that can take time and resources – allows us to allocate more time and energy towards purpose. Further, built environments that minimize risks of falls and make it easier to be physically active can help us stay healthy longer to actively pursue our passions.
Finding Your Purpose at Any Age
Finding your purpose is not easy but it’s vitally important. In the context of a long life, our purpose may change and our “encore” chapter of life may create new opportunities to choose happiness with meaning. Or, for the lucky among us like Charlotte Seigel, our extra years may create additional avenues to amplify and extend our lifelong purpose and inspire younger generations along the way.