Nurturing Purpose Beyond the Self in Older Adults

This article was written by Anne Colby and Jim Emerman.

The Pathways to Encore Purpose (PEP) project is a collaboration between the Stanford Graduate School of Education and Encore.org. The project began with a nationally representative survey of nearly 1,200 adults, ages 50-90, followed by more than 100 in-depth interviews. At the same time, Encore.org began mapping the landscape of organizations that support older-adult purpose goals. In the project’s final phase, the research findings will be made available to the research community, practitioners, and the general public. Anne Colby, a lifespan psychologist who has studied purpose across the life cycle, is the lead researcher. Jim Emerman leads Encore.org’s collaboration with the Stanford team.

Research and policy on aging often focus on how best to address the many challenges faced by older adults, including mobility limitations and other health problems, financial difficulties, depression and other mental health problems, and social isolation. For many people, these problems are associated with severely diminished well-being.

Our national study of people age 50 to 90 offers a counter to this framework: that a high percentage of older adults are purposeful beyond the self, defined as “significant, ongoing commitment to and regular, active work toward goals that are meaningful to the self and also aim to contribute to the world beyond the self.”

Not only did we find that a high proportion (31 percent) of older adults were actively pursuing these kinds of purpose goals, we were surprised to learn that purpose beyond the self cut across all demographic groups, irrespective of personal challenges: It was just as high for respondents from all economic situations and education backgrounds and just as high for those with health and financial problems as it was for those who were healthy and financially secure.

  • One 74-year-old man with a chronic disability founded and runs two large organizations. One organization provides international relief to disaster areas throughout the world; the other provides health-care assessment and support to American Indian tribes in the southeastern United States.
  • A second man, in his late 50s, diagnosed 3 years prior to the study with a terminal illness, plays a major leadership role in AARP’s national program providing financial planning and tax preparation services to low-income elderly.
  • A 76-year-old woman, also facing health problems, runs an organization that provides financial support for low-income individuals with high medical costs. She also visits elderly shut-ins and does the paperwork for her son’s business.
  • A 74-year-old woman who is a volunteer social worker in a social-service program dealing with homelessness and addiction also enjoys organizing Cinco de Mayo and other cultural events.

The study shows that purposeful individuals, those who contribute to the well-being of others and the common good, also experience higher levels of well-being themselves. We found that purposeful respondents experience significantly greater life satisfaction, gratitude, wisdom, personal growth and empathy than respondents who are less motivated by a sense of purpose.

These findings counter a common misconception, even among people who seek greater engagement in purpose-oriented activities, that this engagement might come at the expense of other life goals, such as spending time with friends and family. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that purposeful respondents are also more likely than those less engaged with purpose goals to actively pursue strictly personal goals, such as hobbies and time to relax and have fun. In short, people inspired by purpose do not sacrifice other interests for the sake of their social contributions.

The benefits of purpose beyond the self are evident in other studies of the psychological and physical impact of purpose, including a positive impact on well-being, hopefulness, hardiness and other outcomes (Ryff & Singer, 1998). Laboratory studies document the direct effects of purpose beyond the self on the physiology of the immune system (Fredrickson et al, 2013).

Our study included in-depth interviews with over 100 of the survey respondents. The purposeful interviewees spoke of the great joy they gain from their purposeful engagements, the rewarding relationships they’ve developed, and the general sense of well-being that derives from focusing on important issues in the world. The interviews also illustrate the ambitious undertakings of those with purpose in life. The impressive contributions of purposeful respondents show that significant benefits accrue not only to the individuals themselves but also to others and to society.

So how can we best nurture and support purpose beyond the self? And can the benefits to individuals and society be spread to those not yet strongly engaged beyond the self – the other 69 percent of the over-50 population?

In parallel with the national survey and interview research, Encore.org surveyed over 70 organizations that address the growing population of older adults seeking purpose, either by providing services directly to older adults or by working with nonprofits and other groups to help them tap the talent of experienced adults. (Organizations in every community support volunteering and pro bono work. Our survey focused only on those that have an intentional focus on older adults in these roles.)

We found a diverse landscape, ranging from government programs like the Senior Corps programs – Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and RSVP – all created in the 1960s, to a newer breed of groups that, in addition to placing volunteers in nonprofit roles, offer workshops, training, coaching and other services for individuals and organizations alike.

Yet beyond the big government-funded programs (whose existence is threatened by the proposed federal budget, along with that of the largest senior-employment program, the Senior Community Services Employment Program, or SCSEP), these newer organizations are relatively small and largely confined to big cities, mostly on the East and West Coasts. Few operate in the Mountain and Plains states, in the South or Texas. Given the findings from the Stanford survey, this vast gap represents a huge opportunity for organizations motivated to address this need.

Other findings in the Stanford study point to opportunities to engage a larger share of older adults in purposeful action. The data reveal a strong overlap between spiritual goals and purpose goals, but faith-based programs that explicitly address this confluence in older adults are only beginning to emerge. Similarly, few of the programs we’ve studied have tried to engage adults in their 80s and older or those in poor health, although the data indicate that the desire for purpose persists: Older people with health challenges are just as purposeful as younger, healthier people.

These studies offer very good news – about the prevalence of purpose and the availability of its benefits to older adults across the demographic spectrum – and a big challenge to all sectors of society, to find ways to tap into their wellspring of purpose for the benefit of all.

Over the next year, Stanford and Encore.org will translate these findings into materials useful for organizations seeking to strengthen the engagement of older adults with their purpose goals and sharing the good news – and challenges – with the public and professional audiences. For more information, contact Jim Emerman.

References

Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. G. M., Ma, J., & Cole, S. W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(33), 13684-13689.

Ryff, C. D. & Singer, B. H. (1998). The role of purpose in life and personal growth in positive human health. In P. T. P. Wong and P. S. Fry (Eds.) Human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications, 213-235. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.