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Facilitating Purpose Beyond the Self in Older Adults
posted 02.28.2017

By Jim Emerman and Anne Colby

  • One 74 year old man, who is chronically disabled, is running two large organizations, both of which he founded. One 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 50’s, plays a major leadership role in AARP’s national program providing financial planning and tax preparation services to low-income elderly. His terminal illness, diagnosed 3 years prior, is in remission.
  • A 76 year-old woman in Texas, also facing health problems, runs an organization that provides financial support to fill the gaps left by government programs for low-income individuals with high medical costs. She also visits elderly shut-ins and does the paperwork for her son’s business, as he struggles to get back on his feet after a drug problem.
  • A 74 year-old woman is a volunteer social worker in a social service program dealing with homelessness and also, as a Latina, enjoys organizing Cinco de Mayo and other cultural events in her southern California community.

Research and policy on aging often focus on how best to address the many challenges older adults face, including mobility limitations and other health problems, financial difficulties, depression and other mental health problems, and social isolation. For many, these problems are associated with severely diminished wellbeing. Given this reality, we were surprised to learn, in our national study of men and women between the ages of 50 and 90, that almost a third of respondents were highly purposeful in ways that not only led to high levels of individual well-being but also contributed to the well-being of others and the common good. What’s more, the prevalence of what we call purpose beyond-the-self cuts across all demographic groups and was just as high for respondents with health and financial problems as it was for those who were healthy and financially secure.

The study identified purposeful individuals as those who are strongly committed to and actively working toward goals that are both meaningful to the self and contributing beyond the self. We found that these purposeful respondents were significantly higher than non-purposeful respondents in life satisfaction, gratitude, wisdom, personal growth, and empathy.

There’s a common misconception, even among people who themselves would like to be more engaged in purpose goals, that deeper engagement might come at the expense of other life goals, such as friends and family. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that purposeful respondents were also more likely than their peers—those who were not engaged in purpose goals—to be actively pursuing self-related goals such as hobbies and time to relax and have fun. They were not sacrificing other interests for the sake of their social contributions.

These benefits of purpose beyond-the-self are evident in other studies of the psychological and physical impact of purpose as well, including positive impacts on well-being, hopefulness, hardiness, and other outcomes. Laboratory studies have even documented the direct effects of purpose beyond-the-self on the physiology of the immune system.

Interviews with over 100 survey respondents illustrate the ambitious undertakings those with purpose in life are pursuing. Like other purposeful individuals, these people spoke of the great joy they gain from their work, the rewarding relationships they’ve developed, and the general sense of well-being that comes from focusing on important issues in the world rather than entirely on themselves. The impressive contributions that our purposeful respondents are making illustrate the ways that benefits accrue not only to purposeful individuals themselves but also to others and to society.

Our data show that people in all life circumstances and from all kinds of backgrounds can be purposeful. The payback for society is obvious. And a diverse landscape of organizations and practitioners seeking to foster and support purpose beyond-the-self in older adults is evolving. So how can these groups and society as a whole best nurture and support purpose beyond-the self? Can the benefits to individuals and society be spread to those not yet engaged in purposeful pursuits?

We will be presenting “Facilitating Purpose Beyond the Self in Older Adults” at 3:00 PM on Tuesday, March 21 in the Randolph 2 Room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Chicago, during ASA’s 2017 Aging in America Conference. We invite attendees to join us to discuss the nature and importance of purpose and how best to support its development in the full range of older adult populations.

Jim Emerman is Executive Vice President, Encorge.org, in San Francisco, Calif. Anne Colby, PhD, is Consulting Professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

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