SARASOTA — Ten hours of sleep generally has a salutary effect on my health, so I rolled out of bed this morning feeling markedly less destroyed than I felt yesterday. Seventy degrees and sunshine doesn’t hurt, either. The vibe in Geezerville today was similarly upbeat and, well, purposeful.
The greybeards were out in force this morning, a fact that helped to make me feel a bit more vital. (Everything’s relative, right?) And Vic Strecher delivered a real wake-up call. The University of Michigan public health professor and author of On Purpose (you will never look at a dung beetle in quite the same way) riffed on the importance of purposeful living as a health strategy. Strecher cited research showing that people who led meaningful lives were less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. Having a purpose in your life, in other words, will extend your life.
That applies, by the way, whether you’re 35 or 65 or 85. And Strecher said it could be the key to solving some of our most intractable public health issues. “Rather than trying to scare people into living a healthier life, we should emphasize living a life in alignment with your core values,” he said. “But that requires having a purpose. You have to anchor it with purpose.”
This was good news to those of us still lucky enough to be gainfully employed and not contemplating retirement, but it’s trickier for seniors who have already kissed the 9-to-5 good-bye. It can often take a serious illness before people will wake up and refocus their lives on more meaningful activities, Strecher said, quoting Steve Jobs: “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.”
I don’t know if I’d go that far, but later in the day, during a session on rethinking retirement, Poul-Erik Tindbaek, a professional trainer and coach specializing in “Third Age” thinking, said something that explained a lot to me about why the whole retirement gambit is so daunting: “When you enter the labor market there’s a lot of counseling. When you leave it, there’s nothing.”
Later that afternoon, I drove an hour or so down the coast to meet my two brothers in a cheesy waterfront bar in Punta Gorda. They each retired early and now they flee the Polar Vortex each winter to bivouac in sunny Fort Myers. I told them about Strecher and Tindbaek’s research, and they responded with a resounding “DUH!” My oldest brother, The General, started volunteering at his church not long after saying good-bye to a career in the military. He’s busier now than he was when he was working full-time. The Tin Man, who built a successful business in his 40s and 50s, last winter took a part-time job at a nearby Walgreen’s. “You gotta have a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” he said.
I agreed — provided you’d had a good night’s sleep.