368: Healthy Aging: Keys to Longevity and Happiness in Your Third Age with Dawn Carr, PhD
My guest today is Dr. Dawn Carr. Dawn is the Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Claude Pepper Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University and a former researcher at the Stanford Center of Longevity.
She is the co-author of the book, Gerontology in the Era of the Third Age: Implications and Next Steps, where she outlines the key factors that bolster older adults’ ability to remain healthy and active for as long as possible. She digs into the complex connections between health and active engagement later in life, focusing on the benefits of paid work, volunteering, and caregiving–and how staying active helps us maintain our cognitive, psychological, and functional well-being.
In our conversation, Dawn shares how losing her mother and grandmother within a month of each other changed her life, how people’s lives can truly transform for the better during the third age, and three things you can do right now to live a longer, happier life.
In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- What Dawn learned studying the science of aging by working with very sick older adults.
- What the “third age” is–and why it’s so critical that we make the most of it.
- How to focus on inner connection, get vulnerable, and dig into what truly matters most to you in life.
- Why working part-time (or volunteering) has so many of the protective health benefits of full-time work without the same level of commitment.
- Why nations like Japan experience some of the best longevity in the world–and how we can apply those lessons to our own life.
- "If we aren’t thinking cognitive, physical, and social every day, I think we’re missing out on opportunities to thrive." - @DawnCCarr
- "We only get to live this day this one time, and if we are thinking about letting time pass and not taking advantage of it and thinking about what we want to make of the precious little time we have each day, I think we’re missing out." - @DawnCCarr
- Claude Pepper Center
- Dawn Carr, PhD on LinkedIn
- Dawn Carr, PhD on Twitter
- Gerontology in the Era of the Third Age: Implications and Next Steps by Dawn C. Carr, PhD, Kathrin S. Komp, PhD (C)
- Florida State University
- Stanford Center of Longevity
- Miami University
- Marshal Johnson
- Laura Carstensen
- Psychology Today
- Next Avenue
DisclosureOffer valid in the 50 United States and the District of Columbia, to first-time requestors. During the offer period, receive one (1) in-stock book per request. Limit (1) book per week per household. Limit three (3) books total each calendar year, between January 1 and December 31. Offer valid while supplies last. Howard Bailey Financial, Inc. reserves the right to cancel, terminate or modify this offer at any time. Void where restricted or otherwise prohibited.
Casey Weade: Welcome to the Retire with Purpose podcast. This is your host, Casey Weade, and this is your opportunity to meet one of our world-class guests. We do this every other Monday in a long-form interview. And then, for those of you who’ve been watching the podcast for some time now, you know that every Friday, my good friend Marshal Johnson and I, we get together and cover a trending topic from our Weekend Reading for Retirees Email series. Our mission here today, as it always is on the podcast, is to provide you clarity and purpose and elevate meaning in your life through personal and practical financial strategies. We do that by having both financial and nonfinancial conversations.
Today, we are going to lead in that conversation towards the nonfinancial with our guest, Dr. Dawn Carr. She is the Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Claude Pepper Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. She was previously a researcher at the Stanford Center of Longevity, which we’ve had several guests from the Stanford Center of Longevity here on the podcast over the years. She received her PhD in Social Gerontology and Master’s in Gerontological Studies at Miami University.
And she also coauthored a great book, Gerontology in the Era of the Third Age: Implications and Next Steps. And usually, I wouldn’t read this next part. Our copywriting team did an amazing job really writing down what you do and the impact that you make in others’ lives. She specializes in understanding the factors that bolster older adults’ ability to remain healthy and active as long as possible. Her research focuses on understanding the complex connections between health and active engagement during later life, particularly with respect to the ways in which engaging in paid work, volunteering, and caregiving shapes cognitive, psychological, and functional health and the onset of disability.
Casey Weade: With that, welcome to the podcast, Dawn.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Great to be here. So nice to meet you.
Casey Weade: I’m excited to have you here. I love this topic. I am deep into this topic for myself, longevity and health, not just physical health, but mental health. I love this topic and it’s very pertinent and relevant to the individuals that are stepping into it, a new segment of their life, their second act, their third act, their retirement transition, or however they may define that for themselves.
Along my journey, one of the things that I have tiptoed into is yoga. And I understand you’re quite the yoga practitioner. And I am just always amazed by all the different types of yoga that are out there. And so, when I saw that you were into yoga, you know, I always want to learn more about yoga. Why don’t we go there first because I want to know about specifically Ashtanga Yoga? I’m not familiar with this type of yoga. I’ve just recently started getting into some tai chi and qi gong. And so, those were new things to me. Ashtanga is new to me. So, tell us a little bit about Ashtanga yoga. How do we even begin to get into yoga, Ashtanga yoga, and the impact that this made in your life?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, I started in the very specific type of yoga that a lot of people might know by accident because the yoga that you go into a yoga studio and have a teacher leave you, it’s usually based on the same kind of sequence that Ashtanga provides. So, Ashtanga is traditionally taught in what’s called a Mysore style, sits in a room with a teacher and you learn one pose at a time in a sequence, and that sequence is kind of borrowed in other classes.
So, it’s considered the really intense kind of yoga. I won’t lie, a lot of people think of it as the hard yoga. So, it’s a lot of things. I do a lot of stuff where I’m balancing on my hands and have my feet behind my head and crazy stuff like that. And that’s my everyday life.
Casey Weade: I mean, when we think about as we continue to age, some of the most important elements of our health have to do with balance and strength training. And could this not be one of the key if not one of the most important elements of your physical health, especially as you age?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Oh, 100%. So, the great thing about Ashtanga that I think a lot of people who don’t know a lot about it, it’s actually meant to be personalized to your body and where you are. So, I think about aging all the time when I practice because I’m like, today, this is what I can do. And tomorrow, it’s going to be different. And our bodies change normally. So, we’re trying to kind of be in the moment and let our mind sort of appreciate what our body is giving us and the opportunity to kind of serve us today. And the better we can do that, the happier we’ll be.
And Ashtanga also, like all yoga, I think, helps you kind of turn off the freak-out in your brain all the time. I mean, we’re faced with stress in moments throughout our day, and being able to have a tool that you can draw on that can help you sort of say, I got this, and being able to practice that, that’s like what yoga is all about, like doing things that you’re like, my body can’t do that or I can’t do this. But being able to do it and do it in a sense of calm, that’s pretty powerful stuff. So, that cool stuff that our brain can do when you can just breathe and just be chill, it serves me in every minute of my day, for sure.
Casey Weade: Most of us think of yoga and we go, I could not pretzel that. I’m never going to be able to get in that position. This is just going to be embarrassing. And that’s one of the challenges I have with getting my wife to go do it. She goes, “Yeah, but I don’t know that I can get in that position. It’s just going to be embarrassing.” This sounds like the type of yoga that would make sense for someone that is in a position where they go, “I don’t think I can do that yet.”
Dawn Carr, PhD: Totally. I think that Ashtanga is meant to be from beginner to, like it never ends. You can go with just like 5 minutes of breathing and moving a little bit all the way to the stuff that I’ve been doing after 22 years of this. But it’s perfect. I run into people all the time, like “I could never do yoga because I’m not flexible.” I’m like, “Yeah,” it’s like learning anything else. You get better at it by practicing doing it. You don’t wake up one day and are randomly good at yoga, and if you are, I hate you. I have to work hard at it to be able to make it work. It’s something that it’s good to do things that are hard for you.
It’s like if there’s any advice I want to give someone about aging well, it’s do things every day that are hard for you, push yourself and be a little bit uncomfortable. And that’s one of the best things about, I mean, there’s physical things, cognitive things, social moments we can practice doing that with, but this is one for sure that you can do that with your physical body and your brain, of course.
Casey Weade: Well, I think, many will find that relieving and helpful, and that is the fact, right? One of the keys to health is just to keep moving, and also, mental health, continue to try things that challenge us. So, let’s get into your passion here. You have your passion, longevity, gerontology. And I wanted to go back to your childhood and your early 20s and really find the origin of this passion that you have today.
You had your mother and grandmother passed away within a month of each other. And I’ve read some stories about just how close you were with your grandmother. Could you speak to maybe that time in your life and how that led to the passion you have today?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah. I think, when I talk to people, especially young people, about aging, it’s like the only older people you usually have any experience with are family members. I mean, we don’t live in a world where you regularly interact with older adults if you’re a young person.
And my grandmother was a part of my life forever. She helped raise me. I had these wonderful memories of taking her to church with all her old lady friends. She drove everyone around in this old Nova car. She had a lead foot. I have all these great memories of her. And she lived to be 94. And my mother died one year after my grandmother, her mother, at only 53.
And those two experiences were really fundamental because I learned to understand an old person and old people and all the amazing things they continue to give throughout their lives, even into their 90s. And I also experienced the kind of depth of feeling and understanding about the specialness of life in our everyday moments when you lose somebody very young. Like, you don’t take for granted how much time you have when you lose someone very close to you at such a young age.
And it was kind of a gift, as awful as it was. And I don’t wish it on anyone to lose family member as young. But those two experiences back to back, my grandmother died on my 20th birthday, my mom died just a little bit after my 21st. And I stepped forward after that. I was like, what do I want to do to make the world a better place because everyday minutes are precious and I want to leave the world better than what I arrived in it?
And it did really change how I think about things. And also, I think it made me think about aging kind of too young. I think often, people have to reach a point where they’re like, ooh, the end is near before they’re able to start thinking about what’s really important to them. And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ah, there’s a limitless amount of time. And I didn’t take on my 20s in the same way as a lot of people do because of that. I was able to say, “Well, if I only have these many years left, what do I want to do with those years?” And that was a really big gift.
So, anyway, I think that’s how I kind of got started. I’ll say one last thing about that, which is I also watched my dad recover from the loss of my mom, and that was really impactful. It made me think about at the time, I was already dating the person who became my husband. And we’re still married. We’re just about to celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary.
I got married at 22, just kind of insane to think about. But I started thinking about the preciousness of that, the people around me and how I didn’t want to take for granted this person that I loved. And I still think about that. So, I feel like it’s really served me in the sense of being very thoughtful about who I surround myself with and how I invest in relationships. So, that’s a pretty cool foundation for studying aging, to be honest.
Casey Weade: Yeah, what an amazing opportunity that we don’t see many times as difficult moments in our life, but what a great blessing to share with yourself and all those around you, just how to stay present and really be intentional with your time. And then you took this deep and very academic journey into the world of longevity and gerontology. And I’m wondering, how does your research show up in your life and the way that you think about growing older?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah. So, one of the things that caught my attention when I was in graduate school was thinking about the opportunities we continue to have to grow and change and learn in later life. I think a lot of people who studied aging, especially when I was first learning about what the heck a gerontologist was because I had never heard of it until I was sort of looking around at career choices. And I was like, well, I’ll just look into that. And I didn’t really know what to expect, and I didn’t have preconceived notions about what it meant to study aging.
But at the time, mostly, people were looking at the very sick older adults, which we need to be studying and kind of the challenges of providing care to them and how we live in a society where we need to figure out ways to kind of support their well-being, even in those very vulnerable years. But I was really taken by the fact that no one was really thinking about the opportunities for growth before that period. There’s this really amazing time after we’re in our 50s where we have all this life behind us and we still have so much that we can discover and learn and do and we often kind of close the chapter on growth and development.
And I became really intrigued by all the different ways people remain engaged and how that serves me well, and in fact, helps you avoid those kind of phases of your life where you start to experience some of these physical declines that can really be challenging to fit. So, that’s what really drew me in.
Casey Weade: Is that the third age? Is that what you define as third age?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yes.
Casey Weade: So, is there fourth age?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yes, exactly. I’ll explain that. So, the third age concept, and I’m not the one who invented it. There are plenty of people who’ve talked about the third age. But for me, in fact, I think the first person to even reference that was Bernice Neugarten in the 1960s and a policy, maybe it wasn’t Bernice Neugarten. And I’m forgetting the name. But Bernice Neugarten was a person who talked about the young, old, and I think she had some connections to some folks in Europe when they talked about the third aging and adversity as this period for learning fun things in retirement.
That really, in the way that I conceive of it, it’s the period after your kind of career, your main career, and before you experience physical health declines or disability that prevent you from being able to be active. And that’s a pretty broad definition because what does it mean to move beyond your career that’s personal. You might say I’m going into a second career or having a fun career. That’s still part of that.
But the fourth age is sort of the period of decline where your body is no longer able to serve you in the way that it has in the past. We sometimes say period of disability, sometimes a cognitive health decline. And that’s the period where you really need to lean into being interdependent or dependent really on others. And that’s an important phase too, a different kind of period of growth.
Casey Weade: And this is where we really focus in on productive aging in that third age.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yes, exactly.
Casey Weade: This has just been showing up for me a lot lately, I feel like. You talk about this third age. This is a period of time when productive aging becomes, and this is what I’m hearing, so if I get it wrong, please feel free to correct me, but in this time period, we cross this, maybe age of 50, but just this time in our lives where we’ve passed maybe a traditional career, and now, life becomes more of a focus on the more important aspects of our career. Or we’re passionate about the things that we want to learn and having fun. And so, learning, fun, passion, excitement, those are the things I hear.
And there are so many people that I meet that come into our office that are in that third age. Maybe they got there in their 50s and they continue to stay there until they’re 60 and 65, just trying to endure this period of time so then they can actually enter retirement and do something entirely different, most likely not revenue producing. And I am meeting more and more people as I am recruiting leaders within our organization and I’m really excited about it. I’m meeting individuals that are in those early, mid, late 50s that are on that train, they’re going, “I’ve done this for a long time, I’ve been the leader in corporate America, I’ve run these organizations, I’ve been in the corporate world. And it’s not fun, I can’t get anything done. I am just on this grind that isn’t really something I’m passionate about. I’m not able to make an impact in other people’s lives. I want to be somewhere where, okay, maybe I’m taking a pay cut or maybe I’m not, but I want to be somewhere that is fun and exciting where I can apply my passions and really do something epic at this stage of my life with all my experience and knowledge.”
What is the difference between individuals that seem to recognize that and others that don’t? How do we recognize that stage in our life and make that change? I think it’s a very scary time to make changes as well.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, I think there are a lot of factors. I mean, the most obvious is some people don’t have the luxury. They’re doing manual labor jobs. Their body is breaking down. They don’t have sort of a path for an alternative job. And I think that’s something that as a society, we need to address. That’s not an individual problem. That’s more of a, we need alternative career paths for people who’ve done really great work that’s physically demanding, and they need to be able to have some really great opportunities for meaningful ways to continue to work.
For those of us who’ve been in jobs that are, I’ll say, more high skill type jobs, maybe corporate America like you’re talking about, I think there’s a growing sense of a need for a deeper connection and meaning. And some people don’t, I think they don’t tap into this idea that there’s the ability to take that risk and to try something else. They’re not aware of it. Frankly, a lot of people are just thinking, I want to kind of downgrade and just do less because this isn’t meaningful and I want to do these non-work things that are more meaningful. There are different pathways for that.
But I think increasingly, there’s a reason you see a shift to entrepreneurship actually during that period that you’re talking about. A lot of people are like, “Okay, I’ve learned all this stuff, and now, I want to give back. I want to do something that has impact.” And that’s a normal part of our growth and development. If you’ve met some folks from the Stanford Center on Longevity, they’ll talk about Laura Carstensen, who’s the founding director, and I worked with and learned so much from. She talks about this kind of mouthful thing that it’s called socioemotional selectivity theory, and that’s what the foundation of our work is on.
And it’s talking about our ability to kind of have perspective and know that when our time horizons are shorter, so we know the end is closer, we’re able to think back and say, “I want to focus on the things that give my life meaning and purpose.” And this notion of, and you said fun, but I actually think it’s not fun, I think it’s purpose. We really dig in and I think that becomes more clear to us. It’s not I just want to have it, not that fun’s bad. I think we need moments of just joy for the sake of joy.
Casey Weade: Having purpose is fun.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, well, I mean, that goes with a lot of other things. But I think if we’re thinking about careers or even paid or unpaid activities, I think when we start thinking about what really matters in our life and we’re still in a position to go and tackle that, we’re in this amazing place where we can just kind of say, “Okay, what do I really care about? What can I give back? And how do I dig into that thing that gives me purpose in my everyday life?” We’re all lucky if we can get that. I’ve been lucky because my whole job and every day is sort of like that.
Now, I won’t be looking for probably exactly that kind of transition. But we have opportunities, some of us more than others, to kind of reinvent what our career needs to do to serve us, to kind of dig in to those things. And it’s always about one thing in particular. It’s about people. I mean, if you talk to people about what gives them purpose, it’s an emotional connection with others to feel connected. And the engagements we have with other people are meaningful and that’s really part of aging. We get better at knowing that.
I think when we’re younger, we’re thinking about making money, fame. All the research said that’s crap, right? You need enough money to not be poor because being poor is very difficult to live with poverty. And it’s bad for our health, too. So, we need enough money, but really, it’s about human connections that’s most fundamental to our ability to thrive. And I think that’s what we seek. We get aware, we look around, and we’re like, “Is this what it’s about?” No, I want to make a difference in the world. And that’s finding ways to connect with people and build connection. Meaningful connection.
Casey Weade: I think there’s something important that needs to be stated here that actually, I think is something that comes out of an article that you had in Psychology Today in 2014, the unnecessary parts. You’d quoted a psychologist, James Hillman, who posed idea that aging isn’t a process of adding new layers to ourselves, but rather peeling away the unnecessary parts as a means of eventually finding our core self by late life. And I think what I feel we miss is I feel we miss the idea that it’s not about elimination of everything. It’s not about a complete shift and a complete change. It’s an elimination of the unnecessary parts. That is a process that recreates ourselves and helps us find this area of purpose.
Dawn Carr, PhD: 100%. And I love that quote. And I do think about it a lot fully because kind of getting rid of the unnecessary parts is like the work of life, figuring out what really matters. And I do think that’s actually kind of what I gained as a younger age was I was able to say, “Now, there’s a whole bunch that people spend a lot of time worrying about that interferes with my ability to tap into that, that deeper layer of meaning and purpose.”
And I think that there are certain cultures where we’re better at it than others. And in the United States, frankly, we’re like, those extra layers kind of create a lot of noise in our everyday life a lot. And I think it’s really challenging to figure out and it’s scary, I mean, you have to be vulnerable. I mean, we’re not good at being vulnerable, and learning the practice, kind of getting rid of the mask that we wear in the world so that we can kind of say, “Screw that.” I want to focus on the inner parts where connection can actually happen and I can really tap into what is important to me. That’s the biggest path of life maybe, right? Yeah, I think American culture really makes it especially hard for us to do that.
Casey Weade: I think this is where the rubber meets the road. It’s a good time for us to transition some questions that we had specifically about work and retirement from our Weekend Reading subscribers. Those Weekend Reading subscribers have the opportunity to submit questions about a week prior to this interview. If you’re not subscribed to Weekend Reading, shoot us a text. Super easy. Just text WR to 866-482-9559. We’ll get you signed up and you can start dropping these questions in here.
And so, we had one of those from Denise. So, this is, we have a couple of great questions I felt just really on work and retirement that you could speak to. Denise said, “Working in a demanding job can be stressful. Working longer can keep your mind and body active.” So, there’s a dichotomy there, right? And she says, “Should one retire from work or find less stressful jobs and more friendly work environments?” I think this is really leaning into that piece of unnecessary parts.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, I agree with that. Actually, I think that sometimes we work to be distracted actually, from the parts that we don’t want to think about or be around. It can be an escape. It can actually be a challenge. But work is also, I mean I have a ton of research that shows working longer is good for your health, right. So, it’s this funny dichotomy because certainly, we know that sometimes work is bad for you because it’s preventing you from doing other meaningful tasks or we’re just not comfortable with our non-work lives and our non-work identities.
I gave a talk yesterday and I was saying how a long time ago, I used to want to start this consulting business that’s about teaching people how to retire well, because I feel like people often don’t know what they want to become. We spend so much time trying to figure out what we want to become in our work lives that we don’t, a lot of times, think about what we want to be in our non-work lives. I think the younger generations are a lot better at that, to be honest. They wear multiple hats and they’re good at that. But older generations haven’t been so great at that. And it turns out you can do that in other ways with work, too.
So, within your same job, you can transition to doing kind of mentorship of younger workers and being involved in new types of projects, or maybe you want to leave that job, start a new gig, and use that as an opportunity to figure out who you are outside of work. But these work and non-work lives, I think they often get kind of mushed together more these days with younger generations, but they were viewed as very separate in the past. And I think it’s exciting to be able to start thinking about those things, but intentionally thinking about what is your post-work life going to look like, but also, how do I make my work life be as meaningful as I want in my everyday life and be able to make sure that the work I’m doing is continuing to serve me well and not just keeping me from other kinds of activities that are important.
Casey Weade: Yeah. And we all want an equation. We want A plus B equals C. How do I get from A to B? Just tell me what the prescription is, give it to me. That’s just kind of the way our society works. And one of those things is we have a question from another Weekend Reading subscriber. We have a question from Cindy where she asks, she said, “I no longer want to work full time but would like to receive the benefits of aging well.” And so, she wants the equation now. She says, “How many hours per week would you recommend someone to work to get the benefits of health and happiness? So, how many hours do I need to work to have that perfect balance, get those benefits of aging well, and I don’t have to run the risk of dying young?” And I imagine, in your research, maybe you found some statistical significance to the number of hours that makes sense.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, I’m going to tell you a number, but I’m just trying to find it. I think it’s about 20 hours a week. And I’ll say that because when we look at part-time work, we actually see that it’s just as protective as full-time work, as long as it’s around that 20-hour mark. And I’m talking about physical health generally and disability, like it tends to kind of work pretty well, kind of buffering the consequences of aging pretty well.
But 20 hours a week, you still get some decent money, you’re making some cash that’s helpful. But it’s also enough time that you’re investing a significant amount of half your day and something. To be honest, I think a lot of us really only are working 20 hours a week when we’re working full time. We know we’re filling a lot of those other hours. So, if you’re intentional about engaging in something that you really want to do half the day, that’s a pretty valuable kind of way of spending your time if it’s the right activities.
So, if you’re doing it just to get by, I don’t know if that’s good enough. But if you’re doing it with a job that you’re like, this is fun, this serves me well right now in some way or another, whether it’s because you meet people or you’re doing something that’s hard and you have to learn every day, there’s a lot of ways that working can serve you, but don’t do it just to fill time, right?
Casey Weade: Yeah. I think, we like to make these generalizations as a society. And I think what is often said here, well, if you stop working, you’re going to die, right? So, continue working. And the same thing shows up in the financial world. Well, you need to put all your money in passive index funds. That’s going to be the best thing for you. Not going to be the best thing for everybody, right? Some people can’t withstand the risk. So, when we look at the work and continuing to work, I do believe there are people out there that should quit working and step into a full-time retirement.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Absolutely.
Casey Weade: They shouldn’t work at all in the traditional sense. So, how do we recognize when work is negative, when it is positive, and identifying that in our own unique situation?
Dawn Carr, PhD: I think that’s such a great question because I do think you’re exactly right. You’re going to hear from a lot of people in my world that working longer is what we all need to be thinking about, and it’s because we have labor force shortage on the horizon, and older people are going to help with that. I mean, from a societal perspective, you’re going to hear that. You hear that it’s good for your health.
There’s all these reasons why working longer is a likely scenario for a lot of people. And actually, people who are in really demanding jobs that cause them a lot of stress and we need those people doing that work to run our society, but those people probably shouldn’t be working until they’re in their 70s. That’s bad for their body and it’s not going to be good for them. And I also think, so beyond the fact that the type of work you’re doing, and is it really worth it to continue? If you’re financially capable of stepping away and there are other things that pull you that are going to serve you better, and again, you don’t need the money, you should probably be doing those things.
And I think there are ways to do that. And I study a lot of volunteering. And that’s a big part of my research. And volunteering is often what people step away from their to-do, especially if they really are feeling the need to get back to the world in some way and have those connections. And so, you get just as much bang for your buck, so to speak, in terms of the health benefit from 20 hours of work about as you get from two hours a week of volunteering. Now, that’s a maybe scientists would be a little unhappy with me for saying that because we don’t quite have the ability to compare that.
But when I look at the research on these two things, like that’s something, right? You see a similar kind of benefit for half-time work if you do with two hours a week of volunteer. So, if you’re going to step away and engage in a regular volunteer activity that gives you connection to something that matters to you and you don’t need to work, that’s a great alternative.
But you’re asking a really tough question, like when do we not? How do we know how to off ramp? And what does that look like? And we should be able to think about our work lives in a more flexible way than I often think we do. We sort of see it in a– we’re Americans. We’re like all in or all out so much of the time. And I think there’s this room. Now, I really look to the younger generation to be like, they’re giving us a new road map and they’re helping us think about the fact that we don’t have to be quite like that. We can leave and come back. We can take a break. That’s actually really good.
In fact, I have this research that’s shown that for people in jobs that are cognitively complex, hard jobs, we’ll say, when they leave and come back, we actually see an improvement in cognitive function. And I think it’s because they’re coming back to do things they’ve never done before. When we’re taking on, again, learning new things, trying new things, I mean, it’s incredibly good for your brain and it actually gives you a stronger sense of like a new guiding light for why I’m here every day. I want to get up in the morning to do something that matters. I think that’s really what this is about. I mean, maybe you’re serving a larger kind of goal or maybe it’s serving specific individuals in your life. Maybe it’s caring for someone in your personal world. I think we all need that. And we just sort of have to figure out what do we need to get there.
Casey Weade: I just heard a sigh of relief from so many listening. Oh, you mean I don’t have to work 20 hours? I can just do two hours of volunteering a week and I get all those health benefits.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Well, I mean, like I said, scientists will be like, “Oh, God. What did she just say?” It’s hard, but I’ve been looking at this stuff for years. Yeah, volunteering is remarkably potent in terms of its health benefits and even when you account for all the stuff that makes people likely to volunteer. We know volunteers are unique in very particular ways, but even people who’ve never volunteered before, if they start volunteering, they experience really profound benefits, both in terms of how they feel about themselves and in terms of their actual health benefits. And this is kind of a cool little fact.
And I think you can get this from work or non-work activities. But when we engage in caring activities, there’s growing evidence that we have these physiological responses that cause us to not react to stress. So, I talked earlier about yoga and the extent to which it gives me the ability to kind of handle the bumps in the road throughout the day, emotionally regulate better in my everyday life. This is also true when you’re providing care to another person.
And research shows that on days that people provide care to others, they don’t experience those jumps and stress responses physiologically in their system. And that’s pretty powerful stuff to think about. We need to be finding ways that we can connect with people and by giving to others. It’s really what life’s about.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, we can take this. And there’s about three different ways I want to take this, but I feel like where we’re going is the concept of ikigai. So, in your 2013 Next Avenue article and you discuss this Japanese concept of ikigai, I’m going to say. And so, what is this philosophy? What have you seen in the research with what happens in Japan with those individuals that are in that third age and maybe fourth age that is leading them to having some of the best numbers when it comes to longevity around the world? And how can we apply those concepts in the US?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s what I was kind of referencing before. Americans are not good at this. We don’t have a culture that really focuses on a lot of, I think, what I’m talking about today. But in Japan, it has been kind of built into their kind of way of seeing the reason for living and kind of their guiding light for aging is to really be, as you get older, there’s an expectation that ikigai is kind of like, oh, it’s how you decide how to spend your time. I think, you mentioned before, productive aging.
But it’s really a way to figure out the things you do in your day and make sense of them. And their focus is really on, I would just call it purpose. It’s like find your purpose. And I don’t think we often have the ability to sort of just get back to, oh, I know my life purposes. That actually takes research and time. And I think that’s part of the reason in later life, we get better at it if we’re looking for it, but we should be thinking about it all the time. It’s like we’re out there testing the waters. What is it that provides purpose?
And in Japan, actually, they have things around them like being able to go and do tai chi in the park with other people. It’s movement that they’re doing in their everyday life, but they’re doing it with others and that there is kind of an awareness, I think, that being a worker in the United States, you’re viewed as more important than being someone who’s a non-worker. We sort of look at people who are engaged in work as being more important because you’re giving back.
But actually, we do all kinds of things that are important to the world, and sometimes we’re not paid to do it. And I think that one of the things they’ve been really good at is being able to say we don’t hyperfocus on people who are workers and being more important than those who aren’t working. And further, our body, like I said, changes, our activities change, the people around us change. And we have to be able to continue seeking that purpose even when we can’t do physical things.
And so, even when they’re reaching that fourth age, it’s not like you stop having value in life. I think we often think if you’re disabled, you don’t have the ability to do lots of things. There’s all kinds of ways actually not being able to do things. You peel those layers away even more to figure out what really matters and what makes life have purpose.
And I think they’re just great at that in Japan in ways that, in the US, it’s hard when we age and there’s a sense that you’re going to lose things. But actually, I think they’re really good at using ikigai as a way of showing what you gain. And we could do that here as well if we start thinking about our value in terms of kind of who we are and our identity from a sense of just our jobs. If we’re doing it right, we’re using our jobs to leverage our meaning and who we want to be and how we want to serve. And that sense of service to others is pretty powerful.
Casey Weade: Well, maybe this is all it is, is social connection. However, I think it can be deeper than that. I go back to 2014 Psychological Today article that you had there, where you referenced American psychiatrist George Vaillant and his study on importance of relationships, finding that cultivating meaningful relationships trumps any other factor when it comes to finding health and happiness. That makes me think, well, what’s a meaningful relationship? How do we define a meaningful relationship and almost gauge the relationships we have, measure the relationships that we have to ensure that we’re maximizing the opportunity for us to have meaningful relationships?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, actually, that’s a really hard question. I think that which of your relationships are meaningful to you? If I were to ask somebody that, that’s a really hard thing. And I’m like, “Oh, well, everyone, everything is meaningful.” But I think that it’s true, every relationship we have around us is important, but making sure that we also are digging into certain relationships, and which ones are those? Those are really challenging questions. I used to tell people there’s some research that talks about, because some of us are more social than others, and so, if you talk to a really highly introverted person, they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want lots of people around me. That actually makes me feel not great.”
Casey Weade: Yeah, exactly. That’s my mom. So many people I know, they go, “I feel like I need meaningful relationships. I just don’t want to go do it.” And that’s uncomfortable. It’s scary. Yeah.
Dawn Carr, PhD: It is scary. Again, it’s about being vulnerable and that’s what relationships are, people you can be vulnerable around. And I often say, here’s a good test. How many people who don’t live with you could you call in the middle of the night if there was a terrible emergency and they would show up? And if you can say at least two people, like that’s where you should be like, no less than two people. And I think that’s a pretty good kind of litmus test to say, if I can’t call two people who don’t live with me to come and help me out, I probably am not investing in relationships in the way that I should. And you might lose one of those people and you need to continue to be supporting the social health in your world, right?
But I think it’s really easy to say, I want to make sure I have enough money, I want to make sure that I exercise enough, I want to make sure that I eat healthy foods. We have all these messages. Oh, yeah, don’t be too stressed. Get enough sleep. But I don’t think people put those relationships at the center of their health behaviors. And it’s more important than anything else in terms of your mortality risk.
It’s so funny, if you talk with people, they’ll talk all day about nutritional supplements and all these things, but actually, compared to the connection you have with others, it’s nowhere near as potent in terms of predicting how long you’ll live and the quality of your life. That’s fascinating. And how do you measure that? There are questions about your emotions. And again, that’s being vulnerable, being able to talk about your emotion, the things that scare you, your fears. Who could hold those feelings with you and you can feel like that’s safe?
And then who are people who’ll show up when you need functional help? I think those are two different things. Sometimes they’re different people, sometimes they’re the same, but that’s how we measure meaningful. And I think that’s kind of a helpful guide as people to-do stuff and people to help with your feelings inside. And if we aren’t expressing both, we’re probably missing something.
Casey Weade: I think there’s a tie in here to something you did in a 2015 AARP article, people challenged with finding where should I volunteer. I think there is an equation for this that applies to both, where should I volunteer and who should I seek to have meaningful relationships with? Because so often, we find someone we have a friendship with and we go, “I’m going to go deep.” And then we go, “Oops, I shouldn’t have done that. That was the wrong person.”
And then we have to backtrack and start all over again in that article you shared, the ABCs to think about volunteering. And if I can tee that up for you, that would be helpful. And you said, “Admire and respect the organization you aspire to associate with, believe in the mission, care deeply about the beneficiaries, and dedicate yourself to the task at hand.” There’s a way we identify our volunteer organizations, but can’t we apply that same admire, believe, care to the cultivation of meaningful relationships?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Man, I think you’re missing out on your second career, which is going to be as a social scientist. I mean, that’s good stuff. Yeah, I love that. I completely agree. I think there are people, sometimes we’re drawn to for a lot of different reasons, and sometimes it’s just shared history. You may not be drawn to them in this season of your life in the same way you have in the past. So, I think relationships can be complicated because they’re not always people you admire and sort of have the same mission at the same time because of that history.
But if you’re looking to create new connections with others, that’s absolutely a useful guide. And I think that we often think about making new friendships. That’s something you do when you’re young. And actually, we need to be continuing to be open to making our social worlds bigger. It’s endless. It’s like saying you can only have three kids because that’s how much the love you have. And I think people say that, I can’t imagine having any more love. And then, wow, you find more.
If you’re thinking about your ability to connect with others, of course, our time is finite. But I think our ability to have meaningful connection is not finite. I mean, I think we have the ability to meet people where there are different, again, like sort of seasons in our lives in a different way and build those meaningful relationships. But I really like how you said that, thinking about their mission and kind of where you are, we are able to connect. I mean, everybody has those moments where you meet someone, I don’t know for the first time, but you have like coffee with someone and you’re sitting down and you’re talking and it feels like no time has passed and it’s been two hours, and maybe even it’s been six months and it feels like it was yesterday that you last had coffee. Those are pretty powerful moments in our lives.
I don’t take for one minute that for granted because I think that’s really when I look back on the times when I feel the best about my day, it’s those days, right? You live having, I’ll say, coffee or whatever with someone where you have that moment where you’re talking about things where you really connect. Often, it’s about hard stuff too, right? We’re talking about hard things that we’re tackling or maybe exciting things that we can’t wait to do. And then the rest of your day, you’re like light, you’re walking on clouds. And I think that’s really a sign. Those are the moments when you know that’s the kind of person I should be investing my time in.
Casey Weade: There are so many great takeaways that I already have in this conversation. It’s been fantastic. And I want to get to some general questions if we could close with a handful of general questions. And one of those I just have to make sure I get to, it’s one of my favorite things to ask because I’m really into strange daily practices. I love finding, what are those weird things that we do throughout the day that have a positive impact in our lives that maybe others haven’t heard before, that they can extract and implement in their own lives? What is your strangest daily practice?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Oh my gosh. I was not prepared for this question. Let’s see. So, I would say there are moments when I learn to take a deep breath and take a break that I just stop. I take a moment to actually think through that crazy noise in my head and sit down and force myself to just take a minute. And some people would call that sort of meditation, but it’s like moments of meditation to be able to sit back and be like, I got this. And it’s this positive sort of self-talk mixed with kind of calming the brain, mixed with breathing all at once. And it’s just little chunks of my day throughout the day. And it’s my way of being able to say, “Okay, I’ve got this big stuff coming up.” And I just tap into this. I have the strength to handle what comes my way. So, maybe that’s not crazy or weird or something unusual.
Casey Weade: Well, it’s strange.
Dawn Carr, PhD: But it’s a big part of what I do.
Casey Weade: I mean, so many of us are just going through our lives. I recently implemented a new practice along those lines. I go, well, I want to do that, but how do I remind myself to stop? I would be curious how you remind yourself to pause throughout the day. I set three alarms throughout the day. Have a great morning practice. By 2:30, all right, I’ve lost my gratitude on some days and it’s time to take a pause and just have a moment of gratitude. About 7:30 at night when I’m getting the kids to bed, I need a moment of gratitude because I might not be in the right mindset. How do you remind yourself throughout the day to take these pauses?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah, I do have some of them built in. I realized recently that I was not getting enough of those moments, and so, I forced myself to go have lunch and leave my desk. And I used to walk to go get lunch because I actually go to the cafeteria that’s on campus, which is also fun for me because I can go and sort of just step away. And that walk from here to there, that’s what I use it for. And I never used to take a break and I realized how terrible that was for my brain.
I also start my day with an hour and a half of yoga every day. So, let’s just say it’s about lunch when that starts to wear off and your brain is starting to get a little nutty. So, I hear you about the two o’clock. It’s about one or so, sometimes two when I take that break. And that walk to and from, I feel like I press the reset button. And my drive home sometimes is that moment quiet, forced, but if I know I have a big thing coming up, I sometimes will look at the clock and like, I need those two minutes.
And I’m embarrassed to say this, but sometimes I go in the bathroom and close the door because it’s the quietest place in the house and that’s my moment for reset. And I just sit there and I don’t leave until I feel like I’ve got it together because sometimes, you got to close the door and there’s not a lot of quiet spaces. And when you have kids, especially when they’re younger, that’s like your moment of meditation.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Your kids are a little bit older now, so it actually gives you that space.
Dawn Carr, PhD: They are older now.
Casey Weade: I have two, six, and eight. The bathroom is still not a safe place.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Oh, no. Yeah, my kids are all there. They leave me alone in the bathroom, yeah. I guess that advice very taught me your kids age.
Casey Weade: So, you’ve built it into your day. I think you’ve strategically built it into your day. And we can all do that in our own unique way, but then that’s an important thing. Someone asked me the other day, how do we have the opportunity to feel out what retirement might be before that? Well, having some of these breaks throughout the day gives you the opportunity to feel at calm, what it might actually feel like when you step into retirement. And really, this can be really powerful daily practices.
I want to dig into some other daily practices, not just necessarily for you, but if you are speaking with someone who is in their third age, what would be three things that you feel they should do every day, daily practices they should have to live a longer, healthier life? That could be diet, that could be a daily practice of physical, mental, emotional, whatever that might be. What are three things that you think are essential elements to living a longer life?
Dawn Carr, PhD: Yeah. I mean, the very first thing and the most potent thing, as you could probably guess, would be about social relationships and that it should be an intentional part of your day, the connection to other people. And I recently started– you know it took me a long time. Sometimes I’m slow to learn things, but I realized my husband really likes physical touch. And that’s something that’s important to him.
So, I bought a massage table. And I give him a massage. My commitment is once a week for an hour and it makes him very happy. And it took me years, and I was like, it’s not something I love to do, but I know it gives him the sense of feeling connected. And I think we all have those things. It’s not just about our own needs, right? We’re looking to the world around us and seeing what do other people around me need? That’s once a week for me, but I try to think about that on a daily basis. What is something I can do for others that helps me feel more connected to them? And it has to do with also being empathetic and knowing where they’re coming from. And if we aren’t spending time being empathetic to the people around us, we’re not building connection. So, that’s one.
The other, I’m a huge fan of using your body to the best of your ability given kind of where you are today. There’s a lot of people who have pain and other kind of barriers to movement. So, you have to kind of take stock with where you are. And I think, there’s a saying, like use it or leave it. I truly believe that that holds up in science in all kinds of ways. And if we’re not using our bodies in some way to serve us on a daily basis, and I like finding edge and where’s my edge and I like to play with my edge of my abilities because to me, that’s growth. And I think physically, we can do that.
And then the third thing would be about learning new things. And I think if we aren’t taking on ideas that make us uncomfortable or connecting with new, I don’t know, skills, abilities, and trying to see what we can learn and just be flexible about, I think we get set like this is the way the world works and trying to say what can I rethink or reconsider or try on for size, new ideas, new challenges, learning a new language, something like that, if you’re not doing that on a daily basis, I think you’re missing out on growth and opportunities. And so, that’s cognitive, physical, and social. And if we aren’t thinking cognitive, physical, and social every day, I think we’re missing out on opportunities to thrive.
Casey Weade: Yeah, that’s such an easy way to think about what we should be doing every day. Intentional connection. Move, just move, and learning something new. That’s awesome. Well, I want to bring things to the close with one final question. You’re on the Retire with Purpose podcast. So, what does retire with purpose mean to you, Dawn?
Dawn Carr, PhD: That’s such a great question. And I have to tell you, I love the name of your podcast because if I were to have created a podcast for myself, it would have been called that. It’s so fundamental to what I believe.
Casey Weade: Trademark. It’s too late.
Dawn Carr, PhD: I mean, too late, yeah, I missed out, God. Retiring with purpose to me means retiring and thinking about your time as precious. We only get to live this day this one time, and if we are thinking about letting time pass and not taking advantage of it and thinking about what we want to make of the precious little time we have each day, I think we’re missing out.
So, for me, it’s about time. I wouldn’t have thought that I would say that, but it really is. One minute of a day. Do you really want to be spending five hours a day sitting in front of a television? Like, what’s really worth it? And I think if you can step back in the middle of maybe activities that are just about letting time pass and stepping back and saying, is this serving me? Is this something that I want to define the precious time I have left? And yes, sometimes we need escape, but I think that’s really it, is stepping back and saying, what’s going to make today meaningful and how is it going to help me figure out why I’m here and what I can do to serve others?
Casey Weade: Time is precious. Step back and be intentional. That’s beautiful. Dawn, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a wonderful conversation and can’t wait to see so much of your amazing research and articles continue to show up and have the opportunity to share those with our audience.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Thank you so much. It’s really been a lot of fun to talk about all these things today.
Casey Weade: Thanks, Dawn.
Dawn Carr, PhD: Thank you.