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  • Writer's pictureZach

We Need Purpose, but Don't Want Responsibilty

Jobs can be stressful. I may be "The Happiest Teacher" online, but even I can get overwhelmed and frazzled. With Spring Break almost upon us, 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. Spring Break can't come fast enough!

The desire for that holiday got me thinking though, because I do 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 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 that 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 be achieved and sacrificed for.

And 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, which is the stress hormone our body needs when trying to outrun a Saber Toothed Tiger, but finds less useful in the chronically stressful world we live in now, where the stressers are far more long lived. 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 see what the effect of Retirement was on mortality, and it controlled for health at the time of retirement as well. It found that working actually made us live longer! People who kept working past the age of 65 had 11% lower mortality than those who retired earlier.

This dovetails nicely with the classic experiment done in 1976 by E.J. Langer and J. Rodin that 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 purpose and identity, the thing that got them out of bed in the morning. Without that, they often just don't get out of bed, sometimes permanently.

Purpose and Responsibility exist in tension. If we have a strong Purpose, it can keep us feeling responsible and stressed out, 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. I know that my students really want the lack of responsibility of doing homework, dealing with teachers, taking tests, and all the other things that go along with school, when they say they want a holiday.

But after a while, a few weeks, generally, they want to be back in school, just like for most people with decent jobs, after a few weeks of holiday, they want to have the Purpose again that their job gives them. It's like the Hedgehog principle, where just like two hedgehogs can't get too close without pricking each other, so they have to back away again, Purpose leads to Responsibility, which leads to stress, but then we get away from our Purpose and Responsibility and we feel listless and like we need to be doing 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 that 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 organization you believe in, or caring for a sick relative, or actively pursing your creative passions that you've had to keep on the back burner 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, it's helping keep you alive!

If you liked this post, come join the discussion over at The Happiest Teacher Facebook Group! I would love to have your voice added to the discussion! Also, if you're into that Twitter life, come follow me!

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