meaning and purpose in retirement

Retirement Syndrome is a term used globally to describe the common feelings one might have upon retirement: disorientation, loss of purpose and identity, the fear of too much time on one’s hands, and possible feelings of isolation. It is estimated that 1 in 3 retirees suffer from these transition difficulties and struggle to adjust. Many of us a few years down the road in retirement might experience some of these feelings periodically, even with a new life plan in place.

Finding One’s Purpose in Retirement

Endless books and posts suggest the same menu for “finding meaning” in one’s later years: hobbies, volunteer work, travel, part-time jobs, exercise, engagements with friends and family, and giving in to leisure pursuits. The reason they are so universal is because they work!

However, there are many hours in the day when we are not actively engaging in such realms. That is when the mind begins to wander and question our purpose in later life. This is a very important issue, because “purpose” is directly connected to one’s health.

Viktor Frankl, an Unlikely Retirement Guru

Recently, I traveled to Eastern Europe to visit my maternal roots. I wrote about this life changing experience on Sixty and Me in my article, “Ancestry Travel: A Sobering Experience.” Besides reorganizing how I now feel about my place in the world, upon returning home I watched Schindler’s List with new eyes, and read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning for the first time – how could I have missed it?

Although many in my cultural community recommended it, I hadn’t read the book. I thought it would be a depressing rehash of the Holocaust from one man’s point of view.


Viktor Frankl was a Viennese psychologist of the same caliber as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. His book takes an objective look at the issue of survival from the point of view of a trained psychologist. Of course, unspeakable hardships are described, but the feel of the book is one of absolute positivity. Frankl describes his survival through the strategies of optimism, humor, psychological detachment, brief moments of solitude, steely resolve, and appreciation of nature and art.

How Do All People Make Meaning of Their Lives?

In Man’s Search for Meaning, I found strategies and validation for many issues relevant to retirees. I now feel much more comfortable in my “mature” skin. The crux of this book is to convey the three ways people of all ages make meaning: through love, work, and turning personal challenges into triumphs. Thankfully, we are not residents of Auschwitz, so our challenges are on a different plane, but they exist for everyone.

Frankl’s theory and therapeutic approach is called Logotherapy. He posits through his experience at Auschwitz and as an in-patient Viennese therapist for all age groups, including those addicted to drugs and alcohol, that finding meaning in life is the route to mental health. Without such a purpose, the results are dire. Without goals, there is a loss of faith in the future. According to Nietzsche, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Time to Take Some Bows

Frankl’s ideas which are particularly relevant to those of us in our later years include taking pride in what we have already accomplished. He sees older age as a “harvest of life: deeds done, loves loved, suffering overcome.” The young should envy the old because our “potentialities have been actualized, our meanings fulfilled, and our values have been realized.”

Other gems for those of us in need for a change in perspective include understanding that the meaning of one’s life varies from person to person, day to day and hour to hour. Our lives are like a “film composed of many scenes.” It is every individual’s responsibility to act upon impulses towards life’s varied meanings. “No power can take away” what we’ve experienced. This is a particular challenge because modern society values unending achievement and usefulness.

There Is Work to Be Done

In a similar vein, Richard Leider and David Shapiro, in their book Who Do You Want to Be When you Grow Old?explore the same terrain. They invite us to answer the question, “Why do you get up in the morning?” They propose that purpose, unfortunately, does not reveal itself. It unfolds over time and changes with age.

Purpose doesn’t have to be something monumental. There are thousands of opportunities each day to commit to something “other than oneself.” In Viktor Frankl’s words: “the meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What situations create feelings of confusion about your purpose in life? How have you been able to find purpose at this stage of life? Have you found guidance in any particular books?