The New Quest for ‘Purpose Beyond the Self’

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No one wants to identify as being a person without a purpose — useless, worthless, aimless, an accidental traveler through life.

But searching for purpose sounds like a lot of work. Or something that only happens on the west coast. Or perhaps something only a younger person would do.

In fact, past studies of the topic have focused on younger people, and have posited that having a life purpose is nearly a panacea, helping to:

And one study nearly equates having a life purpose to The Fountain of Youth, claiming that it “acts as a buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.” That means “delaying death” in research-ese.

“Having a purpose in life — a clear reason to get up in the morning — is essential to growing whole,” concludes counselor and life coach Richard Leider in his book The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better.

And if a new study has it right, having the right kind of life purpose may also be essential to growing old.

Peering Into Purpose Anew

With the help of a $1,851,231 grant, William Damon and Anne Colby, psychologists at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, recently took a closer look at purpose and aging in collaboration with, a nonprofit founded a decade ago with the lofty goal of “tapping the skills and experience of those in middle life and beyond to improve communities and the world.”

Their project, Pathways to Encore Purpose, has three parts. Part I surveyed 1,200 people across the nation, ages 50 to 92, soliciting their feelings about life between middle and old age: what they wish for and whether they’re able to achieve their aspirations. The researchers were careful to include participants with varied histories, values, needs, and opportunities and undertook in-depth interviews with a sampling of more than 100 of them. Their goal was to concentrate on purpose beyond the self, which they defined as: “significant, ongoing commitment to and regular, active work toward goals that are meaningful to the self and also aim to contribute beyond the self.”

In a sense, their aim was the human equivalent of that question about the tree falling in a forest: If a person has a sense of purpose and no one is around to share it, does it make a difference? Part 2, still underway, is an all-out effort to create a current database of existing programs and organizations that help people develop and maintain purposeful lives in their later years And Part 3, still to come, is the heavy lifting: an attempt to shift popular conceptions about maintaining purposeful later lives and nudge institutions to change and support the possibility.

But for now, the researchers have started to share their findings: some surprising, some sobering, some hopeful.

What the Findings Found

First, the all-round tally: 69{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} of the study participants reported they were not actively pursuing what was defined as a purpose beyond the self. Still, the researchers dubbed the 31{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} of purposeful people to be a high proportion of the population.

They also summarized a few findings about the prevalence of purpose.

Demographic differences. Women were somewhat more likely to be purposeful than men. But surprisingly, income, educational level, age, and health status had little or no effect on the issue.

What mattered most was race and ethnicity. As tabulated, while only 26{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} of white respondents were considered purposeful, the characterization was much more prevalent among:

  • Latinas and Latinos: 47{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e}
  • African-Americans: 44{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e}
  • Mixed race: 43{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e}, and
  • Asian: 40{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e}.

And I loved this finding:

“Health status is not associated with the prevalence of purpose,” says Colby, noting that many of the purposeful respondents are experiencing health challenges. “Eventually, all of us will lose our health, unless we die suddenly from an accident or something. So the good news is that even when you are confronted with chronic disease or disability, you can still maintain your purpose and commitment in life.”

Personal and diverse focus. In interviews, project participants who were purposeful underscored what you might assume: Their meaningful commitments usually arose from personal experience and interests. An interest in animals, for example, led to a gig walking dogs for shut-ins or working at an animal shelter.

The areas of interest inspiring a purpose spanned a wide range — including poverty, human rights, religious issues, politics, cultural institutions, community development.

Half of the purposeful interviewees were involved with a single overarching issue, but half had a number of diverse commitments. “You would think, in a way, that people who are purposeful would be very focused and totally engrossed in a one issue, but some of them seem to have enough energy to go around to deal with multiple issues,” says Colby.

Many participants said they initially became involved in a cause or calling because another person had invited them to take part in an event, attend a lecture, or become a board member — a finding researchers later hope to plumb by expanding networks.

Benefits of purpose. Purposeful individuals usually showed other signs of strength and well-being; many assumed leadership roles in influencing issues that interested them.

But it’s a two-way street: Most also claimed to get great personal satisfaction from paying it forward. For example, one 74-year-old woman who became involved with an agency offering services to homeless and addicted individuals said:

“It’s just an incredible, incredible experience to watch these people week by week, month by month. All of a sudden, they’re paying their bills, they’ve got a job, they’re taking their meds. Little stuff… And you watch that growth and … that’s just phenomenal. That’s my reward. And I didn’t do it, they did it.”

Perspectives on the “encore years.” Finally, interviewers pressed participants on what it has been like in the later stages of life: whether they view it as a time for themselves — to do fun and interesting things and focus on their own personal growth; or whether they were more oriented beyond the self — determined to make on impact on an issue close to their hearts or use their skills to help others.

Colby says the expectation was that the purposeful people would rate the beyond-the-self goals more highly. But that did not happen. Instead, they endorsed both self-oriented and beyond-the-self goals. “The way we understand this is that by being deeply engaged in contributing to the world beyond the self, they are not taking anything away from their capacity to pursue their own personal goals — like having fun, traveling, taking courses or relaxing,” says Colby. “So purpose in that sense is not a zero-sum game — which I think is one more bit of good news from this study.”

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