FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: AN INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR WILLIAM DAMON
By Sasha Johnson-Freyd
You are an expert on the roles of purpose and meaning in development. What is purpose, and why is purpose important across the lifespan? How can volunteerism instill purpose in people, young and old?
Purpose is a long-term stable desire to contribute something to the world beyond the self, at the same time as doing something that’s meaningful. If somebody orders you to do something, and you do it, it might help the world, but that’s not what we call purpose; similarly, if something is highly meaningful but it’s all about you—going to a wonderful ballet or movie or something like that—that’s wonderful and meaningful but that’s not purpose either. It has to be really the combination of the two: something that you own, that is really important to you as a person, but is important to the world as well.
Purpose is somewhat different than meaning. It’s a certain type of meaning: a meaning that has consequences beyond the self.
The reason purpose is important is that it combats a lot of the tendencies that everyone has towards getting self-absorbed, towards just worrying about your own fate and destiny and advancement in life. It gives you a reason to be engaged in the world—a reason that you bring to the table yourself. People aren’t forcing you to do it: you’re not doing it because it’s your job and you’re getting paid to do it, or because you’re in the army and somebody orders you to do it, all of which can be fine things, but purpose is special in that you do it voluntarily. You do it because you really want to do it. You’re doing something that matters.
When you have that orientation, it gives you a lot of resilience. You keep going. You don’t give up. You care about what you’re doing. It’s long-term: it doesn’t just vanish in a week or two.
Now, that said, people may take on a number of purposes in life, and a purpose doesn’t have to go through all of life. You might have a purpose of raising a wonderful family of children, but the children then grow up and go own and they have their own lives. Or you may have a career that is very engrossing and purposeful, but you retire. The healthy thing to do is to find new purpose, or additional purpose in life. Because when you have purpose, it gives you energy, it gives you motivation: it is a protectant of all types of self-absorption related health issues. For example, there are even data now on purpose in health—physical and mental health. Purpose is very important in life.
We’ve been studying purpose now for more than 15 years, and we’ve looked at people at all periods in the life span. We find that the formative years for purpose are periods of youth: really at the onset of adolescence and later. Purpose is a fairly late developing capacity. Most people don’t really find full purposes until early adulthood or even a bit later.
How can we bring youths and elders together in a way that puts young people on the path to happy and productive lives while affording adults a meaningful and purposeful role?
It’s a very great idea to combine the two generations. Encore.org has an initiative I have worked with trying to do just that; it is a wonderful concept. It’s exactly what’s needed, especially these days, when we live in such an age-segregated society: there’s a lot of isolation at all ages, young and old. What better idea than to bring the generations together to do great things?
There are some opportunities and there are some challenges in doing this. I’ll start with the challenges. We have a project now on people in the so-called “Encore” years, which is generally the post-retirement years. For a lot of them, when you ask about spending time with young people, it’s not the first thing on their radar screen. A lot of them have raised children themselves, or they’ve been in the childcare professions like teaching, and they feel like they’ve done this already. They want to kick back and spend time with people who are more their peers. So there is a relatively small proportion of the population that is primed already to say “I want to spend my Encore years with younger generations.” Reciprocally, the same thing goes with young people. If you talk with an 18-year-old, and say, “would you rather hang out with a bunch of other high school or college kids, or would you like to spend time with people your grandmother’s age?” what do you think they are going to say? There’s a natural resistance, which is the reason there is such age segregation in our society. However, that said, there are great opportunities for joining forces: doing things that combine shared interests.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. If you go to people who are in the post-retirement years, and you ask them to do something that they have become a master at—an artist, or a musician, or an engineer— and say, “You know, there are youth groups that really could use your expertise,” then people will gravitate to that. That is something they’ll be motivated to do because, as when I talked about purpose, I said that purpose is something you bring yourself to, you can’t tell somebody to have a purpose. People are proud of the skills they’ve developed.
Here’s one quick example that’s recent: I met a gentleman who was a mining engineer. He learned a lot in his lifetime. He was at the forefront of mining, expeditions, discovery, and so on. Recently, up at the Almaden mercury mines, they decided to run programs and tours for students to see the history; historically, they’re so important to California. This fellow volunteered as a tour guide, and he loves it. He brings his tremendous expertise and that is something that nobody had to force him to do or induce him to do. It’s a way of combining the interests of the two generations.
You can also look for projects, such as neighborhood projects, that combine the energy, talent, and physical and emotional strength of the younger people with the wisdom of the older people in creating everything from art exhibits to music festivals to cleaning up neighborhood parks. There’s a lot of community ventures that could combine older and younger people, and exchange what each have to offer. That’s how I would recommend bringing the two generations together—around mutual purposes that they have. I think that would help overcome some of the resistance that people often feel about spending time in the abstract: saying “Well, would I like to spend time with people of a different age groups?” I think that’s not going to happen in the abstract. You have to get specific and particular and draw on the special interests and expertise of the individuals who you are asking to get involved.
A person’s “work” in life can vary from traditional jobs, to family caretaking, to community leadership, to active volunteering with an organization. What are the relative merits of volunteering vs. working in an ethical and meaningful way? What roles do working and giving have throughout the lifespan?
In both cases, being purposeful is at the heart of the matter. If I could start with the work: A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t think so much about the purpose of their work. If they do, the purpose is to make money, to provide for a family—which is a purpose, but the work itself is a purpose, and even if it’s work in a corporation that seems to be very bureaucratic and all of that, the corporation is doing something for the world, or else it wouldn’t exist, it wouldn’t make enough money to survive. When people think carefully about what it is they’re accomplishing in their work, and have a sense of pride about that, that is very conducive to doing good work. So I think that when work is purposeful, it really makes a huge difference. You shouldn’t underestimate the power of purposeful work.
It also, by the way, tends to drive people towards ethical work, too: because you care about what you’re doing, you care about the world beyond yourself. So, even if you spend all day typing stuff into a computer and it seems very abstract, think about what that typing is accomplishing and maybe at some end of the chain, it means truckloads of sardines will be delivered to Nashville, TN and people will enjoy those sardines. You should always think about that for the organization.
In volunteerism, of course, it’s easier to see the purpose, because you’re doing something directly for the needs of other people.
But there are limits in both the work world and the volunteer world, and it’s important to recognize those. In the work world, the limits are that you are not setting your own agenda. Everything you do, which may not be what you believe you should do, you do because but it’s what you were told. That provides some limits and constraints throughout the work. It’s necessary to accept those limits and constraints because that’s what it means to have a job; but if those limits and constraints squeeze out all purpose, then I would suggest you might want to look around for a different career or a different occupation. On the volunteer front, you don’t have those limits, and that’s the advantage. On the other hand, in most cases, volunteer work is not taken as seriously as paid work. You don’t quite have the clout you do as somebody with status in the world of work. So, in both cases, you have to recognize the limits and maybe even find ways to make sure those limits do not squeeze out the sense of purposefulness you had when you went into those activities.
Volunteering for organizations that have developed a mission—and have found ways to pursue that mission in a very stable and well-organized way—gives you special opportunities to do something purposeful that really will make a difference. You can be pretty sure that these organizations will find a niche for you and find a role for you that they’ve understood is going to count. That, I think, is something that hopefully we ought to develop more of in our society.
The other issue that I should mention is that in volunteering, people often need to be encouraged to do something: they need to be invited. And there have to already be built-in or built-out opportunities for them to do things that matter. It’s very hard for individuals to invent those things themselves, no matter how creative you are, no matter how motivated you are. There’s nothing like already having a Salvation Army or a soup kitchen or a church organization or an already existing youth program that you can plug into. There are a lot of those opportunities now in our society but there are not enough. A lot of people, when they retire especially, are waiting for something to happen and are looking for opportunities like that. If you build it, they will come. In other words, if the opportunities were evident to them, they would realize how much they want to do something. So I think that would be a direction of future development that could be very helpful in our society: if we move more on the organizational front to create opportunities for people to plug into already existing programs.
Data from the Stanford Center on Longevity’s Sightlines Project suggest that rates of volunteering vary significantly by education: for example, Americans with college degrees report volunteering at a much higher rate (40%) than those who didn’t finish high school (9%). What do you think about this trend?
It is true: we find in our data as well that highly educated people find more opportunities to get involved, especially to join organizations, probably because they have the time to do it. Higher education is related to higher income, and a lot of low-income people are so busy just making ends meet that they really don’t have the time to examine the world and find out what’s happening.
On the other hand, I will say that there’s probably much more going on in a contribution sense, at all levels of income, than the word volunteerism would indicate. In our data, we’re finding that people at all levels of income—especially lower levels of income and lower levels of education—are doing incredibly good work with their families. They’re doing healthcare, caregiving, and the kind of community contributions that they themselves would not call it volunteerism. They would just say, “I’m doing this because Betsy next door needs this; her husband died, her house needs to be painted, we all got together and helped her paint it.” They would say “well I did something for a friend or relative.” And I think that counts a lot for being a purposeful activity.
There are a lot of people that do things that they’re really interested in, that are purposeful activities that matter to the community, even though they wouldn’t show up on a questionnaire about volunteerism. For example, one of the things we find in our data (and this was to my surprise I have to admit) is how much people love animals. I don’t know whether this is true of all age groups, but in our data on encore-aged people, we find a lot of people donating their time or spending their time rescuing dogs or cats, working with pounds to make sure that these animals are treated well, or even working with horses. That’s an example of something that people would say “Well, I do this because I really enjoy it. I like animals” or “I like dogs” or “I like horses” and again they wouldn’t really think of it as doing volunteer work, in the charitable sense. And yet, it makes a difference and it is something that they actually worked on with other people. They might even work with young people on that as a cross-generational project. The woman with horses actually did that and had the younger people come ride the horses. So there’s a lot more going on, I think, across the income levels, than may show up in the survey data that we have.
What role does motivation have in volunteering? Is it valuable to try to motivate people to volunteer? If so, how can we do it?
Motivation is a key part of purpose and it’s a key part of why people do things over the long term. You can always get somebody to do something next week or tomorrow—once or twice. But to have that last and endure and become a real commitment that ends up really making a difference in the world, the person needs to internalize it and it needs to be part of their own motivational structure. You can’t really give someone a motivation, just as you can’t give someone a purpose. What you can do is identify what their interests are, what their motivations are, and facilitate them. Make it possible for them to express those motivations in the world, rather than be frustrated and say, “Well, gee, I wish I could do this, but there’s no opportunities to do that.” I think that’s a role that educators, community people, and people working in organizations or social services can have: creating structural opportunities for people to use the interests that they have and the expertise that they have to do something for the world beyond the self.
I think one of the keys with people in the encore years is playing off the skills and the special capacities that they’ve developed over their life that they’re proud of. As an example from out data: if somebody has spent a life on Wall Street, and has been very involved in numbers—well, gee, that’s something they’ve developed, they’ve retired, and now they want to do something in the world. What can they do? Well, one of the things they can do is help tutor kids in math, and we’ve found people like that, and who loved doing that because it plays off of something that they themselves learned how to do, did with great profit for a lifetime. They did it in their careers, in a business sense, and now they have an opportunity to do it for other people, in an educational sense. There are thousands and thousands of examples like that. Virtually with almost anybody that’s had a career: somebody who’s been a plumber or learned how to do construction work or learned how to drive a truck. If you play off of that, and give people an opportunity to use those masteries that they’ve developed in a new way that they find refreshing, they then get the gratification of seeing “Gee, this helps other people? My god, that’s wonderful.”