By Lisa Jevens
published in Chicago Tribune, Prime Time senior living
How do you transition to a satisfying retirement? Can you successfully cope with the death of a loved one? What is the secret to keeping vibrant in old age?
Just ask a dung beetle. Specifically, one named Winston, created by author, entrepreneur and University of Michigan School of Public Health Professor Victor Strecher in his book, "On Purpose: Lessons in Life and Health from the Frog, the Dung Beetle and Julia."
What qualifies a dung beetle to teach us how to live our lives?
It's simple. According to the book, dung beetles are the epitome of a purpose-driven life. These small, single-minded creatures, also known as scarabs, were immortalized by the ancient Egyptians for their Herculean mission of rolling a large, perfect dung ball long distances, backward, to attract a mate.
In "On Purpose," Winston serves as Strecher's Jiminy Cricket, helping him explore the age-old questions of what makes a meaningful life, how to prepare for your later years, survive the death of a loved one, find your purpose, and live it every day.
"Researchers have found that having a purpose gives you a much better chance at changing your life," Strecher writes. "People with a purpose have well-being: happiness, better sleep, even better sex. People with a purpose appear to be more likely to avoid illness. One study showed that people with a low purpose in life were twice as likely to get Alzheimer's disease than those with a high sense of purpose."
"If purpose were a drug, it would be a billion-dollar drug," Strecher says.
As you may have guessed by now, "On Purpose" is not a typical self-help book. It's a powerful, creative, graphic novel that is easy to follow, engaging and moving, conveniently broken into seven lessons.
The playful packaging belies some heady content. "On Purpose" is not pop psychology. It is an evidence-based, thinking person's book peppered with the musings and findings of luminaries in philosophy, literature, psychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, Egyptology — even pop culture. It quotes Greek philosophers, Mark Twain, Abraham Maslow, Elizabeth Lesser, St. Francis of Assisi, Viktor Frankl, Pink Floyd and many more.
After consulting 2,000 years' worth of experts, Strecher and Winston boil it all down to these simple instructions: Consider what you truly value in life. Consider a purpose toward which you can work with others. Create the energy of body and discipline of mind to achieve your purpose. Do these things and you will have a fulfilling life.
Strecher says "On Purpose" resonates with seniors and retirees because Americans don't adequately prepare for that stage of life. "People say they want to retire and play golf six days a week, then they realize they are really bad golfers," he jokes.
Strecher says retirees often find themselves at a loss because the arbitrary retirement age of 65 was set in the 1930s, before many of today's seniors were even born. "People thought they would be dead shortly after that age," he says. "Now life expectancies are much later."
Strecher recommends maintaining your work to aid your transition to retirement, taking a semi-retirement, or volunteering in the industry where you worked.
"Even after 65 I will keep teaching," he says. "If I didn't teach, I'd die."
Strecher's personal tale of finding his own purpose is interwoven throughout the book, and he writes from the heart.
His was broken in 2010 when his beloved college-age daughter Julia — a recipient of two heart transplants as a child — died without warning. Strecher was forced to re-examine everything he thought he knew about life, death, and his own purpose as he found himself foundering.
Then a friend suggested a way out of his grief: teach somebody something. He proceeded to do just that in a university course on the relationship between purpose and health, which evolved into "On Purpose."
Now there is also a website, dungbeetle.org, and an app that helps you identify your purpose, then track how you are living it each day in the areas of sleep, presence (mindfulness), activity, creativity, and eating well.
Since the book, website and app launched this spring, Stretcher says they appeal to those going through some sort of transition. "That includes losing a loved one, getting sick, retirement or having kids. Also people in recovery or those who have been suffering from depression," he says. "And seniors is a big group."
It's easy to see why Strecher has been in demand as a speaker at senior organizations lately too.
As French intellectual and feminist Simone De Beauvoir is quoted in Lesson 4: "There is only one solution if old age is not to become an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning."