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GREAT SCHOOLS: The incredible power of purpose


Creating a life of meaning makes all the difference for your teen's health, well-being, and success. Here is how to help them find purpose.

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Oliver Johnson, my quiet grandfather who always poked at the embers in his chimney hearth, had purpose in life.

He realized his direction in 1919 as a young man sitting in his Model T on a road in San Pedro, CA, by the oil and gas storage tanks. He watched three inspectors climb a ladder to the top, descending on the other side into the belly of the iron oval. Five minutes later, a fireball exploded upwards, roasting the trio alive.

“I’m going to fix that, Elizabeth,” he told my grandmother, seated beside him.

Grandpa became an engineer at Chevron, but on weekends he tinkered to invent electronic “canaries in a coal mine” to warn bystanders of toxic and flammable air. After incinerating the basement twice, Grandpa was successful. He formed the world’s first gas detection company, J-W Instruments, in Palo Alto, in 1928. His safety gizmos have prevented innumerable deaths.

Fast-forward to the present.

High school senior Sophia Ware recently emailed me her own epiphany: “I watched the documentary Racing Extinction about species destruction caused by humanity. Afterwards, I cried. My heart was physically hurt. I was filled with a sense of urgency and responsibility, so I assumed co-leadership of the campus Green Club.”

This teenager and my long-deceased ancestor both experienced a strong sense of purpose. We hear their divergent stories and understand a single takeaway: having a sense of purpose can bring meaning and direction to our lives. But what many people don’t know is that the purpose is a concept that has been defined, measured, and researched for decades.

William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, provides a clear definition (with his associates Jenni Menon and Kendall Cotton Bronk) in the 2010 study, “The Development of Purpose During Adolescence.” The authors define purpose as a “stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”

The study lists three foundations of purpose:

1. Purpose is a goal of sorts that is both long-term and far-reaching. Day-to-day goals, like studying hard for the calculus exam, or long-term goals, like becoming fluent in Spanish, could be done in service of a bigger goal, like becoming a pediatrician or joining the Peace Corps. But these alone aren’t purpose. Achieving these goals could be in service of a purpose of ending childhood cancer or reducing famine.

2. Purpose is “part of one’s personal search for meaning.” But purpose also includes a desire to make a difference in the world, contributing in a way that serves others and not just one’s self.

3. Purpose requires a skill set or talent which can be applied toward this goal. “Purpose is always directed at an accomplishment toward which one can make progress.”

Put more simply, purpose is defined as “a long-term goal for the common good, that one has the skills to succeed in”, and the passion to pursue.

Why is purpose important?

In Damon’s landmark book The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, his research discovered “people who pursue noble purposes are filled with joy.” Further studies of people who did “socially valuable ‘good work’ in their careers” reinforced his belief that “elevated purpose” acts as a driver in one’s daily efforts, giving individuals energy, satisfaction, and even persistencewhen facing life’s obstacles.

What’s more, life without purpose can be detrimental to a young person’s health. Studies reveal young people without purpose are more likely to suffer from eating disorders, internet gaming disorder, depression, and substance abuse. Conversely, research notes young people with purpose exercise more often, have better self-image, more academic success, superior life satisfaction, and motivation. They are also happier and have healthier “identity formation.”

Is “purpose” the same as “passion”? No, it is not.

Kendall Cotton Bronk, principal investigator for the Adolescent Moral Development Lab and a professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, explains. “Passions refer to objects and activities we really enjoy [and] care deeply about.” Purpose on the other hand is goal-oriented and done “for the world beyond the self.” So a young person might be passionate about hiking and find purpose in working to preserve the environment.”

Does every young person find purpose? The sad answer is no.

Damon conducted a study in the early 2000s that indicated only 20 percent of young adults have purpose. The remaining participants in the study were either “disengaged” (25 percent had no motivation to care for anyone but themselves), “dreamers” (25 percent had lofty ideals but they weren’t moving towards accomplishing them), or “dabblers” (30 percent had semi-goals but only a weak commitment to pursuing them).

The present generation, Damon believes, is aimless compared to previous eras, because purpose has been demoted to be only “a marginal concern… in most of our families and in practically all our schools.” Young people today, he believes, focus too much on financial success and career status, but lack ambition to live for a greater purpose. Teachers, he adds, rarely explain to students the broader, socially-valuable goals their education can lead to.

Anxious now, parents and guardians? Fretting about your purposeless teen who careens around scattered as a chicken with their head cut off? Fear not. With guidance, your young ones can identify and progress toward purpose. But to do that, they need to 1) assess their strengths and capabilities, 2) determine what they love to do, 3) locate a gaping need in the world.

Unfortunately, purpose-finding is not a topic taught in high school. High schooler Sophia ruefully notes that “many teachers seem to encourage a destination-less path through education, so students can avoid the stress of actually finding one’s true purpose.” Locating a reason for living and investing the time and energy to define a young person’s sense of purpose can be done. But finding their purpose often requires guidance and support from the caring adults in their lives.

Here are 8 ways you can support your child in finding their purpose:

  1. Expose them to a variety of experiences

    Kids often find a sense of purpose when they’re treated to new, unfamiliar adventures. My brother, Rene, found his life direction on a family fishing trip. “The first time I felt a tug on the line, that was it,” he told me. “Fishing completely captivated my interest.” He majored in Aquatics Ecology, and spent his career in Alaska and Oregon helping preserve salmon for future generations.

  2. Encourage reflection

    Bronk advises parents to help their young children “engage in reflection.” After activities, she suggests asking, “Why did you like that activity?” “What would have made it better?” Helping children reflect, she claims, will help them find their purpose. When they’re teenagers, Bronk suggests harder questions, like “What do you want to accomplish in your life?” (Additional questions here.) Parents should respond to the answers, Bronk says, “with genuine curiosity. Be non-judgmental and don’t guide their answers.” Additionally, parents should avoid raining on their child’s parade — don’t tell them what they want to do cannot be done. (Check out GreatSchools’ “Like a Sponge” podcast on “The Power of Purpose.” Tip: Go to 11:08 of the podcast for an example of how to talk with your child about purpose.)

  3. Help teens find the flow

    What makes your teen feel “locked in the zone,” fully absorbed, and exhilarated? This brain state — the “flow” — defines passion as a crucial one-third of the purpose recipe. Teens in the flow are on the path to purpose. They just need to develop the proper skill set and use it to make a positive change in the world. Sophia says, “I experience flow when I’m propelled out of my comfort zone by greater pressure to do what is right. Greater purpose gives me confidence. When I speak at city council meetings about climate change, my hesitations melt because I’m actively engaged in the solution. I transcend my individual, self-centered fear of public speaking. I’m in the flow and it is thrilling.”

  4. Model purpose

    Research indicates parents are primary role models in influencing “adolescents’ own plans regarding their future work involvement.” When you explain your own goals, motivations, and the meaning in your life with your teenager, they can see how it happens in real life. When you describe how your daily activities, including your purpose as a parent, give you fulfillment because you’re trying to do your part in making the world a better place, your child will understand the benefits of investing time and energy in finding their purpose.

  5. Do online assessments

    Dabblers, dreamers, and the disengaged can take a wide variety of online tests to help them determine their skills and vocational interests. Both the Strong Interest Inventory (by Myers-Briggs) and the Holland Codes divide people into six types of personalities, with ideal occupations specified for everyone. Gallup offers a CliftonStrengths test that aids participants in finding their five most powerful attributes (out of 35) in an hour-long assessment.

  6. Enlist purpose mentors

    Brock suggests that parents put their children into contact with someone who has purpose in an area that their child is interested in. “This is reassuring to children, to know they are being supported and helped in this way.” She advises teens to talk with adults they know well (such as trusted friends of the family) to discuss and help them define their purpose. It’s especially helpful if that adult’s purpose aligns with your child’s. For example, if your teenager is interested in a medical profession, connect them with a person you know who works (with purpose and satisfaction) in the medical field such as a doctor, nurse, or EMT.

  7. Grow their gratitude

    Brock says that adolescents who feel grateful will “want to consider how to give back.” She suggests practicing gratitude daily at dinner and elaborating on it on holidays like Thanksgiving. Sophia’s gratefulness for the beauty of nature motivates her to mitigate climate change, which in turn defines her purpose and gives her life meaning and shape.

  8. Do this Purpose Mind Map together

    This Purpose Mind Map is adapted from the Stanford University study. In the study, pairs of young people interviewed each other about what they cared about, what talents or skills they had, and what change they wanted to see in the world. Then they each drew their own mind map. The point of the study was to measure levels of purpose in young people. But an interesting outcome of the study was that this single 45-minute exercise seemed to improve the young people’s sense of purpose. When researchers contacted the participants six months later, the study participants had significantly higher rates of purpose than they had before.

Updated: March 2, 2022