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Stanford and Bay Area Nonprofit Study How Older Americans Can Live More Purposeful Lives

Two Stanford Graduate School of Education psychologists and the San Francisco-based nonprofit have partnered in a $1.8 million study to better understand why some Americans aged 50 and older are driven to make a difference in the world around them, and why others are not.

The study, called Pathways to Purpose in the Encore Years, resulted from research showing that while older adults with a strong sense of purpose live longer, healthier lives, few actually engage in sustained, purposeful activity. These findings prompted both organizations to realize the importance and urgency for society to address this concern.

Professors William Damon and Anne Colby, psychologists at Stanford's Graduate School of Education
Professors William Damon and Anne Colby

Stanford psychologist Anne Colby, the project’s director, says the study responds to “a historic challenge and opportunity” to meet the reality of the “dramatic aging” and increased longevity of our world’s population. “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.”

People in the 50- to 70-year-old age range face a period of tremendous change and challenge just as adolescents and young adults do, notes Colby’s colleague William Damon, a leading expert on how people find their callings in life. Yet older adults don’t often get the same amount of support or access to resources that younger people do.

That’s where the Pathways to Purpose study comes in:

  • Part 1: Colby and Damon have completed a national online survey and in-depth interviews of American men and women age 50 and older to investigate their aspirations and the barriers and opportunities to reach them
  • Part 2: Next, collects data to create a current database of existing programs to help older adults develop and maintain purposeful lives
  • Part 3: Both parties will look for ways to implement insights from Part 1 and resources from Part 2 to shift popular perceptions of older adults and improve programs that support purposeful aging

Colby, Damon and are hopeful that their study will contribute to the popular discourse on aging, purpose and well-being. “Helping older adults achieve, in a practical way, their desire for purpose beyond the self is a really important question for our whole society,” notes Jim Emerman, executive vice president of

 “The most fully satisfying meaning involves commitments that contribute to other people, or to making a positive difference on issues in the world that one really cares about,” adds Colby. “Older people with a sense of purpose can make powerful contributions toward addressing urgent problems in the world.”

To learn more about the Pathways to Purpose study, read the Graduate School of Education news article.

To learn more about’s mission and resources for those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world, visit the website.

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