January 5, 2024 • Article, Third Third, Third Third Journal
In the last few years, I’ve talked with dozens of people in the third third of life, asking them how they’re doing, what challenges they face, and what gives them meaning and joy. Again and again, I hear a common lament that goes something like this: “I wish I had a better sense of my purpose in life. I need some clear purpose to motivate me to get out of bed in the morning. But I just don’t have it anymore.”
Now, for the record, none of the people I spoke with were actually in bed, so something did help them rise and shine. But their point remains valid. As we get older, we often become unclear about our purpose for living. When we were going to school, building a career, or raising a family, our purpose was more obvious. But what is our purpose when our kids are gone? Or when we retire from full-time work? Or when the things that once guided our lives no longer apply?
In response to what I’ve heard from so many third-thirders, I’ve written a series of articles on the theme, Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third of Life. I’ve offered a variety of suggestions for how you might get clear on your purpose as you get older. I’ve said that I don’t think there is one, obvious process by which all people can identify their life’s purpose. People come to clarity of purpose in many different ways. But I do think there are a variety of factors, perspectives, and exercises that can help everyone move toward greater clarity when it comes to their purpose for the third third of life.
To review where we’ve been so far, here are the ten suggestions I’ve offered to help you discern your third third purpose:
Suggestion 1: Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.
Suggestion 2: Seek the Lord in prayer and surrender to God’s will.
Suggestion 3: Pay attention to how God has made and gifted you.
Suggestion 4: Pay attention to what God is putting on your heart.
Suggestion 5: Pay attention to where you are bearing fruit.
Suggestion 6: Look for continuity but be open to surprises.
Suggestion 7: Get in touch with and act upon your generativity.
Suggestion 8: Experiment your way forward.
Suggestion 9: Discover and discern your purpose in community with other Christians.
In this article, I want to suggest one more way to clarify your purpose. Here it is:
Suggestion 11: Pay attention to your joy and gratitude.
By attending to what gives you joy and the things for which you are particularly grateful, you will be able to see more clearly your third third purpose.
Paying Attention to Your Joy
It’s common for folks who write about joy to distinguish between joy and happiness. An article in Harvard Health Publishing observes,
Joy and happiness are often used interchangeably. However, happiness technically refers to the pleasurable feelings (emotions) that result from a situation, experience, or objects, whereas joy is a state of mind that can be found even in times of grief or uncertainty. Thus, we can work on cultivating joy independent of our circumstances.
For example, recently my family and I went out to dinner for my son’s birthday. The food was delicious and made me quite happy. But, at a much deeper place in my heart, I felt joy over having Nathan as my son and seeing the man he has become.
In this case, happiness and joy came simultaneously. That was not the case in August 2011 when my wife and I said goodbye to Nathan as he began his freshman year at New York University. I felt terribly sad to leave him and equally sad that our family life would never be the same. Yet, at the same time, I sensed a powerful joy over what Nathan had accomplished in his life and where he was headed. I rejoiced over the young man he had become, someone so mature in kindness, conviction, and faith. So, as we left Nathan on the streets of New York (literally), I felt the sting of unhappiness while, at the same time, my heart was filled with joy.
It’s not necessarily wrong to be happy or to seek happiness. If you are living into your purpose for life, you may very well feel happy at times. But joy is so much more than feeling happy. My Fuller seminary colleagues at the Thrive Center for Human Development offer wise insights into the nature and experience of joy. Professor Pamela Ebstyne King and Frederic Defoy note in “Joy as a Virtue” that “joy involves knowing, feeling, and enacting what matters most.” Thus, Rebecca Baer observes in “Deep Fulfillment Through the Practice of Joy” that “the experience of joy is intricately tied to how we define what is good in the world: we experience joy when we celebrate things in ourselves, relationships, or surroundings as being truly good.” For Christians, Baer adds, this means “True joy blossoms into life when we see and celebrate love in the world as that which is truly good.”
Joy, though such a simple word, turns out not to be a simple concept or experience. Trying to define it can be challenging, to say the least. But I believe most of us understand joy, if not intellectually, then experientially. We understand what it is to know, feel, and enact what matters most in life. We have experienced deep joy over that which is good, most of all the goodness of godly love. Moreover, we know what it is to feel joy even in sorrow.
Joy and Gratitude
Joy is often expressed in gratitude. When we experience joy, we are moved to give thanks, not so much for the experience of joy as for the goodness on which it is based.
We see a close connection between joy and gratitude in Scripture. The prophet Isaiah, for example, envisioned a time when “the LORD will comfort Zion”. On that day, “joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isa 51:3). Or consider what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (1 Thes 3:9). Joy inspires and finds appropriate expression in gratitude.
Though joy can lead to gratitude, sometimes the flow goes in the other direction. Professor and influencer Brené Brown writes, “The relationship between joy and gratitude was one of the important things I found in my research. I wasn’t expecting it. In my 12 years of research on 11,000 pieces of data, I did not interview one person who had described themselves as joyful, who also did not actively practice gratitude.” But, according to Brown, gratitude doesn’t just follow from joy. “Instead,” she writes, “practicing gratitude invites joy into our lives.”
I can testify to the truth of what Brown’s research has shown. For many years, I have arisen early on Thanksgiving Day to make a list in my journal of all the things from the last year for which I am thankful. When I begin my list, I don’t feel particularly emotional. Mainly I’m trying to wake up and remember what happened in the last year. But as I jot down that for which I am grateful, offering thanks to the Lord for each item, I can feel effervescent joy welling up inside of me. At times I’m shocked by just how grateful I am for something I had previously taken for granted and by how much gratitude-based joy overwhelms my heart.
Joy, Gratitude, and Third Third Purpose
No matter the order of the experience, whether joy leads to gratitude or gratitude leads to joy, joy and gratitude surely go hand in hand. Moreover, both individually and together, they can help us clarify our purpose in life.
Why? Remember that joy is related to “what matters most” (Ebstyne King and Defoy). It is profoundly connected to “things in ourselves, relationships, or surroundings as being truly good” (Baer). When we pay attention to our joy, we bring to mind the most important things in life, the best things in life, the things that really matter. These things will be essential to our purpose in the third third of life. As we get older, we don’t want to waste our limited time on that which is trivial and transient. Rather, we want to invest our time, talent, and treasure in what matters most. By attending to our joy, we will see more clearly what we truly want to do with our lives and why.
The same is true when we pay attention to our gratitude since it both expresses and evokes joy. The things for which I am most grateful are the things that matter most to me in life. And these are the very things to which I want to devote my life both now and as I get older.
How to Get Started
As you read this, you may be well aware of what gives you joy and gratitude. If so, that’s great. You’re ready to reflect on how your joy and gratitude might inform your third third purpose.
However, I expect that many readers will realize that they need to develop a greater awareness of their joy and gratitude. If you belong to this group of readers, be encouraged. It’s easy to get started in the work of attending to your joy and gratitude. Here are a few things you might do:
- Ask the Lord to help you become more aware of your joy and gratitude.
- Set aside an hour or so to make a list of the things for which you are grateful. As you add something to your list, say to the Lord, “Thank you for ______.” (You don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving morning to do this!)
- Go for a walk in a quiet place where you can reflect on what gives you the most joy in life.
- Talk with someone (or several people) you trust about your experiences of joy and gratitude. We often discover things about ourselves when sharing them with others. Plus, as you listen to what others say, you may very well see new things in yourself.
- Engage in a weekly “gratitude experiment.” I’ve written about that here.
These are just a few possibilities among many. The point is to develop a greater, regular awareness of what gives you joy and what you are grateful for. Taking time regularly to express your gratitude to God is one of the best ways to foster this kind of awareness. And this awareness will help clarify your purpose in the third third of life.
Banner image by Freepik.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.