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Seven life goods: Purpose and well-being in later life

Publication Authors: 
Anne Colby & Emily Morton
Publication Year: 

Scholars from many disciplines have articulated the ways that virtue, character, and social contribution constitute essential personal as well as social goods. These and other aspects of moral and social maturity represent crucial elements of human flourishing at both individual and societal levels. Although scholars include somewhat different capacities as fundamental elements of well-being, most include qualities (such as competence and autonomy) that are not inherently moral in nature as well as moral qualities such as contribution to others’ well-being or to the common good and aspects of positive relationships such as compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude.

This paper will articulate a set of seven basic life goods, drawn from theoretical discussions of well-being in the psychological literature as well as a close reading of interviews with 102 Americans between ages 50 and 87. Our intention was to identify key aspects of human life that are widely valued across different backgrounds and life circumstances. These elements, the 7 Goods, provide a schematic overview of what respondents are after in life, what’s important to them, and sources of satisfaction in their lives. The 7 Goods are: (1) purpose beyond the self; (2) positive relationships; (3) positive sense of engagement (as opposed to boredom or disengagement); (4) competence/mastery (sense of competence, efforts to learn and build skills, and satisfaction derived from being productive); (5) freedom/autonomy/self-direction; (6) safety, contentment, and predictability; and (7) spiritual connection, elevation/inspiration, or spiritual growth.
We expected that, despite the broad applicability of the 7 Goods scheme, individuals could be characterized by particular patterns of presence and centrality of the 7 elements. The central question discussed in this paper is whether and how profiles across the other six of our well-being elements differ for individuals who display clear purpose beyond the self (one of the 7 Goods well-being elements) as compared with those who are not purposeful.

This research draws from a larger study of purpose in later life, which included surveys with a national US sample of 1198 respondents and in-depth interviews with a subsample of 102. From the interview subsample, we identified 18 “purpose exemplars,” who unambiguously met each of several criteria defining purpose beyond the self. We compared these exemplars with 18 interviewees of comparable ages and genders who unambiguously failed to meet the criteria for purpose beyond the self. Interviews from both groups were coded for the 7 Goods elements, yielding a finding that the two groups (which, by definition were non-overlapping on purpose) also differed dramatically in the prevalence of the other six elements. In brief, the purpose exemplars were more likely to exhibit positive relationships, positive engagement, building and using competencies, and elevation/spirituality than were non-purposeful comparison cases. In addition, the elements the purpose exemplars exhibited were more fully interconnected than the elements present in non-purposeful interviewees. The element freedom/autonomy was prevalent in both groups but had strikingly different meaning for the individuals in the two groups.
The paper will describe these and other differences between purposeful and non-purposeful older adults and will discuss the implications for positive aging and well-being more generally.