Right up there with money, a sense of purpose is crucial for a successful retirement

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A recent report by the demographic consulting firm Age Wave and the financial services company Edward Jones highlights four interdependent pillars of retirement: Good physical and mental health; friends and family; financial security; and purpose. What stood out to me from their survey results was how nearly all retirees (92%) reported that “having purpose is key to a successful retirement.”

A recent study published in the journal “The Gerontologist” found that during the pandemic a sense of purpose was associated with lower loneliness among older people, as well as greater intentions to engage in COVID-19 preventative measures. The six authors say the study, despite its data limitations, “suggest that purpose in life is a valuable psychological resource that may empower individuals to make life-saving health decisions that protect their own health and those around them.”

These rather dry reports reminded me of a remarkable day several years ago when I interviewed Michael, then age 69. He was a work-camper traveling from campground to campground for seasonal jobs, mostly in national parks. He had retired from a job he loved in 2010. He had a pension, Social Security and the income from his part-time work. “I watched my dad retire, sit in a chair and die a miserable death,” he told me. “I won’t do that. You have to have a purpose.”

What is purpose? How do you find your purpose? These are critical questions at any time, but they become particularly pressing with age. A resource that is both inspiring and practical for thoughtfully thinking about your purpose is “Who Do You Want To Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging,” by Richard Leider and David Shapiro.

The main focus is on encouraging people to grow old with purpose — which can change and evolve over time. “Choosing one’s own path of purposeful aging is not a luxury,” they write. “It is fundamental to well-being, throughout the course of one’s life.”

Mostly, the book distills the wisdom they’ve accumulated over the years thinking about and talking about purpose. They offer practical suggestions. For example, ask yourself “how” you want to help; “who” you want to help; and “what” energizes you.

Money matters in retirement. Even more important is having purpose — the reasons that give your life its meaning.

Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace,” and at Minnesota Public Radio.

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