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An Encore For Purpose: GSE Study Results Reveal Importance of "Purpose Beyond the Self"

Note: This article by Stanford researchers is a follow up to our Winter 2016 article introducing their study.

By Katie Remington and Dr. Matt Bundick

Stanford Graduate School of Education faculty Anne Colby and William Damon, along with their research team, are conducting a study to examine purpose beyond the self in individuals in late middle-age and beyond—folks in their “encore years.” The study, called Pathways to Encore Purpose, is a collaboration with the San Francisco non-profit,, whose mission is to “build a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world.”

The Study


The Pathways to Encore Purpose study includes a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,200 people between the ages of 50 and 92, along with in-depth interviews with a subsample of more than 100 people. The goal? To learn what is important to people at this stage of life and to what degree their priorities include commitments that contribute to the common good, which the researchers call “purpose beyond the self (BTS).” They define purpose BTS as active, ongoing engagement in working toward goals that are meaningful to the self and that contribute to the world beyond the self.

Initial Results


Diverse group of senior adults smiling and laughing together

Initial analyses of the survey data indicate that an overall percentage of 31% of those sampled are purposeful beyond the self. The survey data make it clear that this kind of purpose in life is present across all categories of income, levels of education, gender, race/ethnicity, and health status. For example, those with the lowest levels of reported income are equally likely to be purposeful as those at the highest reported income levels.

The interview data reveal that the areas of contribution are highly diverse and include involvement with local communities, electoral politics, education, poverty, the environment, the arts, human rights, animal rights and welfare, religious issues, and veterans’ affairs, as well as a more general desire to “give back.”



Respondents were asked to rate a set of eight visions or priorities for their encore years. Some were personal/individual, such as “It’s a time to do fun and interesting things like traveling or taking classes,” and some were beyond-the-self oriented, such as “It’s a time to ... nurture compassion for broader humanity.” Purposeful respondents exhibited a strikingly different pattern of ratings than those who were non-purposeful: they typically rated both the personal/individual visions and the BTS visions more highly than the non-purposeful respondents.

For example, the majority of those who were purposeful felt that their encore years are “a time to have an impact on an issue in the world that I care about” and “a time to use my skills and experience to help others” while at the same time felt it is “a time to take care of myself, to relax, and ‘make time for me’” and “a time to spend more time with my family.” The respondents who did not exhibit purpose BTS rated the personal items more strongly than the BTS items (as expected), but counter to expectation, gave the personal items lower ratings than their purposeful peers.

"Purpose beyond the self is significantly related to other positive dimensions, including satisfaction with life, gratitude, empathy, and sense of personal efficacy in relation to personal growth."

The research team interprets this finding as an indication—further borne out in the interviews—that purposeful people are less likely to experience social contribution and personal pursuits as conflicting. For them, life is not a zero sum game. This attitude appears to be a particularly constructive approach to later life: the study shows that purpose beyond the self is significantly related to other positive dimensions, including satisfaction with life, gratitude, empathy, and sense of personal efficacy in relation to personal growth.

Another surprising finding is, in essence, a paradox that the research team is still working to understand. The most widely cited barrier to purposeful engagement in the survey (and echoed in the interviews) was health problems or concerns. And yet, the rates of purpose in those who rate their health as poor or fair are no different than in those who rate their health as good or excellent. Even though highly engaged interviewees did talk about needing to give up some of their more physically demanding activities as their health problems intensified, for purposeful people this was a last resort—they were not easily deterred.

Next Steps

The research team is still in the process of analyzing the study’s data, and they expect many other insights to emerge over the next year of the project. The next step, once analyses are complete, will be to work with the staff of to make the results accessible and useful to organizations and individual practitioners who serve older populations as well as to the general public.

To learn more about the Pathway to Encore Purpose study, read the Graduate School of Education news article.
To learn more about’s mission and resources for those in midlife and beyond, visit the website.

The Pathways to Encore Purpose Stanford Research Team:
  • Dr. Anne Colby, Ph.D., Consulting professor at Stanford University, former director of the Henry Murray Research Center at Harvard University and senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
  • Dr. William Damon, Ph.D., Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and professor of education at Stanford University
  • Dr. Matt Bundick, Ph.D., Assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Psychology, and Special Education at Duquesne University
  • Dr. Heather Malin, Ph.D., Director of Research, Stanford Center on Adolescence
  • Katie Remington, M.Ed., Doctoral student in the Stanford Graduate School of Education; research assistant at the Stanford Center on Adolescence
  • Sophie Garnier, M.Ed., Research assistant at the Stanford Center on Adolescence
  • Indra Liauw, M.S., Doctoral student in the Stanford Graduate School of Education; research assistant at the Stanford Center on Adolescence
  • Elissa Hirsh; Administrative Associate at the Stanford Center on Adolescence


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