While the proverbial midlife crisis is typically seen as a fearsome enemy, cresting the hill of middle age can launch a quest for true meaning in one’s life. Authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro have crafted a number of books guiding inner growth and empowerment, including Whistle While You Work, Claiming Your Place at the Fire, and the international bestseller Repacking Your Bags. In their latest book, Something to Live For: Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life, Leider and Shapiro offer specific steps to a meaningful elderhood, interspersed with illustrative stories from their real-life explorations—both geographical and psychological—among indigenous tribes in Africa.
On the weekend of August 14–16, Leider will be giving a workshop, “Something to Live For: Repacking Your Bags for the Second Half of Life,” at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. Leider is a senior fellow in the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing; has penned additional books (The Power of Purpose and Life Skills); is a founding partner of the Inventure Group, a coaching and consulting firm; and was praised by Forbes magazine as being among the nation’s top five coaches. Leider recently spoke with us by telephone to share some of his insights and give us a peak into the workshop’s intention.
In your book Something to Live For, you talk about the three concepts of money, medicine, and meaning. Can you summarize what you mean by this?
Today, people are living longer than ever before. In 1900 the life expectancy was only age 47, and now we’re living into our eighties. What do we do with those extra years? We need to look at money, medicine, and meaning. Do we have enough money to do what we want? And by medicine we mean, Do we have the energy and health? And if we have enough money and health, what’s the third leg of the stool? It’s meaning.
Meaning is a fundamental human need. And it’s a megatrend of the 21st century. We’ve had the positive psychology movement—it’s a very big trend, with thousands of books in the self-help section—but what I’m talking about is the positive aging movement. MetLife, the largest insurer in the country, has a research group, the Mature Market Institute, which did a study based on my work in which they interviewed thousands of people from ages 47 to 74 about this very question of money, medicine, and meaning. They found that meaning trumps money: It’s more important to people.
How do you define a meaningful life?
There are four parts. The first is community. Throughout history, we’ve not lived in isolation, in retirement homes where we’re disconnected from the world, like so many older people do today. People want to be connected. It might be through faith-based organizations, or volunteer organizations—there are a thousand things. Second, people want to be connected with friends and family—a more intimate community. The third part of meaning is creative work. People really want to use their abilities to accomplish things. It’s not just about money. They actually want to feel connected to their work.
And the fourth is helping to make things better—to somehow be part of “saving” something. That can come in a lot of forms, like volunteering. And when we find ourselves disconnected from that, it’s a problem. A core question behind all this is pretty clear: What gets you up in the morning? You can talk about purpose and meaning in lofty terms, but when you don’t have a purpose to get up in the morning, you don’t live as happily or fulfilled—or as long. Research supports this.
You have talked with lots of older people around the world, and you have some insight into “what the elders say,” to use your phrase.
I’ve been interviewing people for 30-some years, and I’ve found three themes that come up over and over when I ask, “If you could live over again, what would you do differently?” First, they say I would be more reflective, meaning they would stop and look at the big picture, instead of being busy, busy, busy, and all of a sudden we’re older, wondering, Where did that life go? Secondly, they say they would be more courageous in two areas: work and love. In work, where you spend 60 percent of your life, they say, “I wish I would have made a better choice.” Courage is the courage to say no to some things and yes to others—to look for that which is a better fit. A lot of folks got into their work just by accident, and took an easier route. The same is true with relationships.