Why it’s important to have a sense of purpose and responsibility

Research shows that working longer may lead to a longer life

A hopeless retirement concept jar with coins and dried plant
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Jobs can be stressful. I may be The Happiest Teacher online, but even I can get overwhelmed and frazzled. I am inundated with grading, moving campuses, reports, lesson plans, professional development, clubs, teams and all the other stuff that goes with being a good teacher these days.

The desire for a holiday got me thinking though. I love my job, so why should I want to be away from it? Why do I want to veg out with Netflix and maybe find a beach for a couple of days when I get such a thrill helping kids learn?

Questions like this strike at the dichotomy of the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) community, a growing group of people who save a huge amount of their salary so they can retire decades before they are “supposed” to.

Why should they want to just sit around all day for 30 years? That sounds like a prison sentence, not a goal to work towards.

It’s not just me asking this question. There are real life and death consequences of working and retirement, no matter the job.

Many jobs create so much stress in our lives that it chronically elevates our cortisol levels. Long-term exposure to elevated cortisol levels have been linked to everything from heart disease, strokes, obesity and many other dangerous conditions.

The other side is almost as frightening. It turns out that retirement can kill us too! In 2016, the University of Oregon published their Healthy Retirement Study, which used data collected over 18 years to assess the impact of retirement on mortality.

It found that working actually makes us live longer. People who kept working past the age of 65 had 11 per cent lower mortality than those who retired earlier.

This dovetails nicely with the experiment done in 1976 by E.J. Langer and J. Rodin who found that the simple task of taking care of a plant keeps seniors alive for longer than those who don’t have that purpose in their lives.

When people retire, they often lose their sense of purpose and identity, the thing that got them out of bed in the morning

When people retire, they often lose their sense of purpose and identity, the thing that got them out of bed in the morning.

Purpose and responsibility exist in tension. If we have a strong purpose, it can keep us feeling responsible and stressed, even if it gives us a reason for living. When people say they want to retire, they often just want to give up the responsibility of their jobs.

When my students say they want a holiday, I know they want the lack of responsibility of doing homework, dealing with teachers, taking tests and all the other things that go along with school.

But after a few weeks, they want to be back in school, just like most people with decent jobs feel after a few weeks of holiday. They want to have the purpose again that their job gives them.

Purpose leads to responsibility, which leads to stress. But when we get away from our purpose and responsibility, we feel listless. We want to do something to contribute to the world, which gets us back into situations with more responsibility, and the cycle continues.

So, how can this idea help us? Basically, if you are heading towards retirement, make sure you have something to do after you give up your 9-5 job that still allows you to feel like you have a purpose for living. It can be volunteering for an organisation you believe in, caring for a sick relative, or actively pursuing your creative passions that you’ve had to keep on the backburner for too long.

And while you’re working, be grateful that you have a reason to get up in the morning, even if it comes with responsibility, because science shows that it helps keep you alive.

Schoolteacher Zach Holz (@HappiestTeach) documents his journey towards financial independence on his personal finance blog The Happiest Teacher