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Study aims to help older Americans lead more purposeful lives

William Damon and Anne Colby
William Damon and Anne Colby

Study aims to help older Americans lead more purposeful lives

What inspires certain people to be community-minded later in life? Psychologists Anne Colby and William Damon are looking for answers.

In the iconic movie The Bucket List, grey-haired characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman hit the road in a last-ditch attempt to experience some of life’s greatest thrills, including racecar driving, skydiving, climbing the pyramids, and going on safari. The term “bucket list” caught on, and now many older people ask themselves what they want to do, and where they want to go, while they still have the energy.

But however exciting and engaging exotic trips and hobbies and adult education classes may be, they’re ultimately unsatisfying if they aren’t accompanied by something with deeper and more sustained meaning, note Anne Colby and William Damon, psychologists in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “The most fully satisfying meaning,” they say, “involves commitments that contribute to other people, or to making a positive difference on issues in the world that one really cares about.”

Damon already has written extensively about purpose — which he defines as “sustained commitment to something that is meaningful to the self and contributes to something larger, beyond the self” — as it relates to the education of adolescents and young adults. Now he and Colby are building on that research, in partnership with, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that connects older adults with public service-oriented jobs and volunteer positions.

Their goal: To better understand why some older people, but not others, are driven to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children, education, the environment, the arts, or the health and wellbeing of local communities.

The $1.8 million study was inspired by a troubling fact: Relatively few older adults have found purposeful engagements that they act on in a sustained way. Yet research suggests that there is significant untapped potential for this kind of engagement. In one recent survey, 87 percent of older respondents said they felt a responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves, and 70 percent said that it was important to leave the world a better place.

“There are an awful lot of people who just want to travel or take classes after retiring, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Colby, the project director, “but if that’s all they’re doing, what does it add up to, in the end?”  Studies show that older people with a strong sense of purpose tend to live longer, healthier, happier lives, she notes. And their purposeful commitments not only serve their own wellbeing. “Older people with a sense of purpose,” she said, “can make powerful contributions toward addressing urgent problems in the world.”

The study, she added, “responds to a historic challenge and opportunity: the dramatic aging of the world’s population, which is now a time of good health and energy for many older people. Now, more than ever, it’s critical that the large numbers of people between middle and old age flourish psychologically, physically, spiritually, intellectually and civically.”

As part of their research, Colby and Damon are planning a national online survey of 1,200 American men and women age 50 and older, plus in-depth interviews with about a hundred of the respondents. The psychologists hope to get a better sense of what older individuals — especially those in the so-called “encore years,” ages 50 to 75 — are looking for, in terms of life goals and priorities. They’re also interested in what personal characteristics may separate the doers from the dreamers; and what obstacles might be standing in the way of those who have not yet found a sense of purpose.

Some of the barriers to social contribution later in life might be logistical — difficulties in finding transportation, for example — while others might be physical or emotional.  As Colby noted, “Many retirees are exhausted. They feel like they’ve been meeting obligations all their lives, and they don’t want to get into more situations where people are expecting something from them.”

But she added optimistically, “There’s a history of baby boomers being change agents, and perhaps this generation will find ways to recharge and empower those who feel burned out. It’s important to see how organizations and practitioners can help older adults lead purposeful, fulfilling lives, and the study aims to find out how to do that.”

To complement the research study,, will be compiling a database of organizations that already promote purposeful aging, including faith-based organizations, health-care providers, continuing education programs and advocacy groups. Ultimately and the Stanford research team will be working with those groups to translate the study findings into public impact toward purposeful aging — through media coverage, educational materials, programming for non-profits, insights for life coaches and faith-based organizations, and the like.

Some might wonder why would turn to psychologists at Stanford’s Graduation School of Education — an institution that normally focuses on young people — for help on a project about elders. But Colby and Damon see the study as a natural extension of their previous research. Both take a lifespan perspective on human development, which looks at how humans mature from early childhood through old age.

In addition, Damon, who serves as director of Stanford’s Center of Adolescence, is one of the world’s leading experts on how people find their callings in life. His 2008 book on the subject, The Path to Purpose, explains why some youngsters find life pursuits that inspire them, while others fail to launch.

Like adolescents and young adults, Damon noted, people in the 50- to 75-year-old age range are on the brink of tremendous changes. They face challenges over retirement, health and other physical changes, and finances. And just like younger people, they could benefit from educational materials that help them to reflect on their skills and interests and think about how those assets might be used to enrich their lives while also contributing to the greater good.

 “If you are an older adult who enjoys playing the piano as a hobby, for example, you could think about bridging from that to something that has meaning to other people,” Damon suggested. “Perhaps you could teach a younger person to play, or create cross-age performances that help build community in your neighborhood.” The goal, he said, “is to bring your own activity out into the broader social world, so that it adds value to other people’s lives.”

Jim Emerman, executive vice president of, said he can think of few scholars as qualified to take on this research project as Colby and Damon — and few topics as vital for academic study.  

 “Helping older adults achieve, in a practical way, their desire for purpose beyond the self is a really important question for our whole society,” he noted. “On the one hand, we have social problems that need talented and passionate people to help solve them – everything from the future of the next generation, to climate change to access to health care – and on the other hand, we have millions of baby boomers and older adults who can really benefit by being engaged in purposeful activity beyond the age of retirement.”

The key to addressing all those issues, he says, “will be to take people with a desire to make a difference, and get them to the point where they are able to act.” 

Theresa Johnston is a writer who contributes frequently to Stanford Graduate School of Education websites and other publications.

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