Large numbers of older adults rank life goals focused on “purpose beyond the self” very high on their personal priorities and are actively taking steps to realize these goals, according to early findings by researchers led by William Damon and Anne Colby at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.

An article in Cardinal at Work, a newsletter for Stanford faculty and staff, provides a sneak peek of the results of a large national survey and over 100 in-depth interviews conducted by the research team, who are working on the project, titled Pathways to Encore Purpose, in collaboration with

Among the early findings:

  • About one in three of those sampled place a high priority on purpose beyond the self and are working actively to achieve those goals.
  • The desire for purpose beyond the self is expressed across all categories of income, educational attainment, gender, race/ethnicity and health status.

One surprising finding is that, contrary to assumptions, having a life goal of purpose beyond the self is not a zero-sum game. Purpose beyond the self doesn’t require the sacrifice of other goals of a more purely personal nature, such as personal growth and broadening their interests. In fact, people with a strong sense of purpose beyond the self are more enthusiastic about this goal and others, such as having fun, than are people with a weaker sense of purpose.

For example, when asked how well the statement, “It’s a time for personal growth, broadening interests,” reflects their views about this life stage, 67 percent of those with a strong purpose motivation say it is accurate or very accurate. By contrast, only 44 percent of the “non-purpose” group feels that the statement reflects their view.

The study has also unearthed some questions for closer analysis. For example, health concerns are the most widely cited potential obstacles in the pursuit of “purpose” goals. Yet in practice, those who report fair or poor health (rather than good, very good or excellent) are no less active in pursuing these goals.

Stay tuned for more information coming out of this study as the Stanford team and report out the complete study findings in 2017.

Published: October 10, 2016

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