Time after time, in survey after survey, my own cohort of Baby Boomers, as well as people into their 70s and beyond, express a powerful impulse towards finding and serving a purpose beyond themselves. The organization I work for, Encore.org, is built upon our belief that a largely untapped human resource for effecting social change flows from that sense of purpose.
But what’s the connection between wanting to make a difference and actually making one? My own thinking got a jolt last fall when I read Jonathan Rauch’s fascinating cover story in The Atlantic, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” a savvy romp through a slew of research on happiness in later life.
Rauch begins by reviewing research into the well-known U-curve of lifetime happiness: Happiness bottoms out around age 50 and starts climbing after that. After discovering that this phenomenon cuts across geographies, cultures and other primate species, Rauch digs into its possible biological, psychological and evolutionary roots. Rauch first cites Stanford psychologist (and Encore.org board member), Laura Carstensen, on where people find satisfaction in later life: “As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.
Rauch next recaps the work of Dilip Jeste and other researchers who are using functional-MRI brain scans to understand if older adults’ brains are wired for wisdom. Among the traits found to correlate with older age: greater compassion, less competitiveness, reduced regret for things one cannot change, greater social reasoning, improved long-term decision making and greater comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity.
And here is where the trail leads us: The purposeful desire to achieve social impact (throughout the life course) and the accretion of wisdom and the experience of greater happiness with the passage of time are accepted truths. Of course, for many people, social impact is channeled through their immediate social circle, for instance, as grandparents. This raises a crucial question: Do these wisdom traits, when joined with a passion for leaving the world a better place, translate into a unique path to social impact?
My answer: Yes. In my work over the last decade I’ve regularly witnessed the truth of this proposition. I’ve been privileged to read the stories of, and often meet, nearly 500 women and men recognized by The Purpose Prize, our program recognizing social innovators over the age of 60. Their deep empathy, lack of ego and willingness to risk failure for causes they deeply believe in is the existential ‘glue’ that unifies Purpose Prize winners and fellows, no matter where they live or what they do. It’s easy to see how those characteristics might translate into impact.
I’ve observed similar arcs for the more than 500 individuals that Encore.org has placed in Encore Fellowships in nonprofit organizations since 2009. These fellowships are meant to bridge the transition from a private sector career to work that’s focused on social purpose and impact. The evidence to date is anecdotal but enthusiastic: Numerous testimonials from nonprofit leaders acclaim the efficacy of these one-year encore fellowships in creating transformational change.
This year, we hope to balance the anecdotes with analysis. Three studies are under way here that will shine a light on the purpose-impact connection. With Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist best known for the theory of flow, Claremont Graduate University professor Jeanne Nakamura is leading a team at the Quality of Life Research Center that is looking at the characteristics and pathways of social innovators who have been Purpose Prize winners and fellows. And in two related projects, one in partnership with organizations in our network that help people find encore roles and the other with Boston College, Encore.org is studying two broad questions: What types of impact are created by individuals serving in paid and pro-bono/volunteer encore roles? Second, is there a correlation between impact and personal characteristics most often associated with maturity, that were apparent in the individuals carrying out these encore roles?
Stay tuned for the results. And if you know of any research or have thoughts on the through-line between life experience, purpose and social impact, I’d love to hear from you.
Executive Vice President, Encore.org
Guest Blogger, The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College