I recently had the opportunity to talk about teaching for purpose in afterschool and community-based youth programs in an interview for the Learning In Afterschool & Summer blog by Sam Piha. This is such a great topic, and although I wrote Teaching for Purpose specifically for school-based educators, there is no doubt that out-of-school programs are essential resources for supporting youth purpose development.
That interview had me reflecting back on what we have learned about supports for youth purpose development. A couple of findings are worth a deeper look.
As we analyzed interviews with 11-23 year-olds, several types of support were found to shape purpose: cognitive (information for pursuing a goal), emotional (encouragement), social (networks, role models), and opportunities (to take action). There were no strong differences between purposeful and nonpurposeful adolescents in how much of these supports they received. Purposeful youth described more opportunities to act on their important goals, but other than that nonpurposeful youth were as likely as purposeful youth to report getting each of these types of support.
So, how did they differ? What did purposeful adolescents find in their social environment that might have enabled them to find purpose when many of their peers didn’t? We’re not sure, and a lot more research is needed to fully understand this, but two things jumped out in this study: nets and webs.
Nets: Opportunities to act on goals were important for developing purpose, but most young people with purpose took initiative and created opportunity when they didn’t find one. In doing so, they described the value of another social resource: they had a safety net—a place to land if they took risks and failed. As one young person said, “My family is never going to leave me for my whole life. It’s my roots, gives me something to fall back on.” Others found their safety net in a community organization or group. Doing something that is personally meaningful and makes a difference in the world is vulnerable and risky. A safety net makes it possible to take such a risk.
Webs: Aside from opportunities, no single source of social support was more prevalent among purposeful than nonpurposeful youth. What we did see among purposeful youth; however, were webs made up of several different types of support. These webs were provided by social institutions or structures, such as faith groups, schools, and community centers. A typical web of support includes emotional resources, social networks, access to information, and opportunities to take action. A church youth group, for example, might support young members by integrating moral values, a caring peer group, adult mentors, and structured opportunities to do community service, providing a web of support that is ideal for finding or creating purpose.
There is still more research needed to understand how and why some young people develop purpose, but it seems clear that the answer will not be found in a single source of support. The findings about nets and webs suggest that supporting youth purpose development is a complex process that integrates multiple resources.
Moran, S., Bundick, M., Malin, H., & Reilly, T. (2013). How supportive of their specific purposes do youth believe their family and friends are? Journal of Adolescent Research, 28(3), 348-377
In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth argued that there is a relationship between grit and purpose, with other-oriented purpose being a driving force for the grittiest people – their motivation to persevere came from their drive to do something for others. Our research with young adolescents provides partial support for this claim. Among our 8th and 9th grade survey respondents we found a small but consistent correlation between grit and purpose. However, our interviews with some of these teens suggest that the relationship between grit and purpose may look different for young people.
First, let’s step back a bit to look at what grit and purpose are and why we might even expect them to be related. Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” Purpose, as we define it, is a higher-order goal that is both meaningful to the self and contributes to the world beyond the self. Grit, then, is a capacity or strength that can be applied in pursuit of important goals. Purpose is the content of the goal and the motivation that drives it. Theoretically, they fit together nicely, with purpose providing the what and the why of our most important goals and grit providing the how.
In our interview analysis, we first identified young people who had purpose according to our criteria: they were actively pursuing goals that were both very meaningful to them and that were motivated by a desire to contribute to the world beyond the self. We then looked further to see if they met any of the criteria for grit in pursuit of these goals (pushing beyond failure, challenging themselves, deliberate and time intensive practice, etc.). Most of our purposeful interviewees didn’t describe any notable grit in pursuing their purpose goals. In fact, some seemed to take the path of least resistance in pursuing purpose. One of our purposeful interviewees aspired to be a professional author and wrote stories to inspire and encourage others to be creative. Yet, she had one of the lowest scores on the grit survey and in her interview described herself several times as having a tendency to give up. Another was passionate about helping teens who deal with bullying and suicidal ideation. She provided this peer support through twitter because she could reach many people with minimal time and effort -- not a very gritty approach.
The grittiest interviewees did not appear to have any pattern to their purpose. Some were very purposeful in pursuing beyond-the-self goals, while others were gritty in their pursuit of self-interested long-term goals or academic achievement goals. Even among those who were both gritty and purposeful, grit was not necessarily driven by or toward purpose.
Here’s another interesting finding from the same study. Unlike grit, which is taught as a skill to support academic achievement because it correlates with GPA, purpose appears to have no association with GPA. We don’t know why this is, but I speculate that it has to do with the lack of connection between students’ potential for purpose and what they are learning at school. When young people find or create purpose it is outside the classroom, in their extracurricular activities and community groups, in the creative activities they pursue at home, and in their interactions with family. These purposeful young people are driven and motivated, they are more engaged at school and have higher school attendance, but they don’t get the highest grades.
The conclusion I draw from all of these findings is that we might better support students to attain a successful and fulfilling life by finding ways to connect with their purpose at school, rather than focusing on building up grit for academic outcomes. If there is purpose, the grit will follow. Or it won’t but at least there will be purpose.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.
Malin, H., Liauw, I., & Damon, W. (2017). Purpose and character development in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46, 1200-1215
What is the difference between purpose and meaning? Do you think of them as the same thing, or do you see them as different?
The two terms – “purpose in life” and “meaning in life” – are often used interchangeably, but in our research we draw a clear line between them. To study purpose, we need to define and differentiate it from similar concepts, such as meaning. The definition of purpose we use is “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is both meaningful to the self and of consequence in the world beyond the self.” This definition distinguishes purpose from meaning in a few ways, which I’ll explore here.
Meaning is about coherence and significance. We find meaning in life by making connections: between our past, present, and future; between events in our lives; and with people. We can also create meaning by developing or discovering a narrative arc of our life: what is the story of my life? What are the thematic threads that run through my life? We also find meaning by understanding what our lives signify, or what is most significant in our lives.
Purpose is meaningful activity, but as the definition above suggests, it’s more specific than that. Purpose, unlike meaning, is an intention or goal, and specifically it’s a higher order goal that is a sustained source of motivation. It’s the drive to be the kind of person who solves environmental problems, helps other people, or raises thoughtful children. Meaning isn’t a goal, though we can act on what we find meaningful to bring more meaning to our lives. If red dahlias remind you of your wedding day, planting red dahlias in your garden will be a meaningful act, but not a purposeful one. And, meaning doesn’t require any action at all, though purpose does. You cannot live a life of purpose if you think about your goals but don’t act on them.
The other key difference between purpose and meaning is that purpose is a desire to be of consequence beyond the self. When we ask, “what is my purpose in life?” We’re asking, “what is the purpose of my life in the world here and now? What can I contribute, with my unique strengths and interests, that the world needs?” A meaningful life might include contributing to the world beyond the self, but not necessarily. We often find meaning by connecting with others outside of ourselves, but that doesn’t necessarily require doing things that make a positive contribution to others.
Baumeister, R. F., (September 6, 2013). The meanings of life. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-better-a-happy-life-or-a-meaningful-one
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119-128.
Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. Boston, MA: Beacon.
Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in life. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd ed.), 679-687. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Whenever we talk with educators about our research on youth purpose, the question always arises about whether we expect all students to have equal opportunity for developing purpose in life. Is it fair to expect that students experiencing poverty, trauma, or other forms of adversity would be able to pursue something as impractical and inaccessible as purpose? Some argue that opportunities for purpose are constrained by life circumstances, leaving many students with a bleak outlook for a purposeful life. Others suggest purpose is an unrealistic luxury not all students can afford to prioritize.
What does the research tell us about the relationship between purpose and adversity? One noteworthy finding, consistent across different age groups, is that everyone can reach the same level of purpose in life regardless of income. Among 8th and 9th graders, we used free/reduced lunch eligibility as an indicator of family income and found no difference in purpose between those who were eligible for free/reduced lunch and those who weren’t. In a study of older adults, purpose was equally present across all different income levels.
A look at research interviews with teens suggests it’s true that purpose is defined by our circumstances. However, that doesn’t mean a student’s potential for purpose should be limited by their circumstances. On the contrary, young people can find purpose in response to adversity, and in doing so create new circumstances for their life that open the door to more far-reaching purpose. For example, some interviewees developed purpose by protesting anti-immigration policies that were hurting their family. A few years later, we found them still pursuing purpose: two in law school and another running for city council. Their flourishing purpose was defined by their early adversity but not constrained by it.
These teens demonstrated how purpose can be a positive outcome in response to adversity. Another study showed that people with a higher sense of purpose experience a more positive response to trauma. We see in our interviews that some people respond to adverse experiences by seeking to do something that will have a positive impact in the world to counter the negative experience. For example, a student who lost a family member to cancer might pursue a career in cancer research, or a teen who experienced bullying at school might respond by starting an anti-bullying support group for other students who are suffering.
Together, these findings suggest that it is not only possible for students from all different circumstances to create a life of purpose, but that we should not think of purpose as a luxury. Purpose can be a source of personal growth and resilience, especially for students who are dealing with adversity. Life events and experiences of all types are not limitations on purpose, but potential inspirations for purpose. We should set high expectations of all students in terms of how they pursue and create purpose for their lives, regardless of their circumstances. They need the adults in their lives to be role models and mentors that believe in them to be capable of whatever purpose they want for their lives.
Feder, A., Ahmad, S., Lee, E. J., Morgan, J. E., Singh, R., Smith, B. W., Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2013). Coping and PTSD symptoms in Pakistani earthquake survivors: Purpose in life, religious coping and social support. Journal of Affective Disorders, 147(1-3), 156-63.
Malin, H., Liauw, I., & Remington, K. (2018). Early adolescent purpose development and perceived supports for purpose at school. Manuscript under review.
Do you think of purpose in terms of making the world a better place? Contributing to your community? Providing for your family? Solving environmental or social problems? Creating things that change how people think or feel?
We've asked hundreds of people, young and old, what matters most to them and why, and what they are doing to show that it matters. Can you guess what matters the most to most people? The majority of our interviewees of all ages talked first and foremost about how important their family is, and that is where many people find purpose in life. Some young people describe their families as essential sources of encouragement and support, and said they work hard to make their parents proud or to some day provide financial support for their family. Some were older siblings who were fiercely and lovingly protective of their younger brothers and sisters. Some cared deeply about the close relationships in their family and acted to strengthen those bonds.
Many people have a more distant sense of purpose, meaning they find purpose in aspects of life that are not in their immediate social sphere. Some find purpose in working to make improvements in their community, for example by planting trees at a local park, tutoring young students after school, or joining a community improvement organization. Others find purpose on a more distant and abstract level, striving to solve problems in society or the environment through policy making or advocacy, by making scientific discoveries or inventions, or by creating art that changes how people think. Yet others find purpose on a spiritual level, seeking to live a virtuous life according to their faith. And of course, many people find purpose on more than one of these levels during their life.
None of these ways of creating a life of purpose is more purposeful. The father working to provide a secure life for his young children is just as purposeful as the medical scientist trying to cure cancer and the diplomat negotiating peace among nations. Our role as educators is not to evaluate or judge what gives students a sense of purpose, but to get to know them better by inviting their purpose into the classroom and encourage them to pursue what let's them be their best self.
What would students' experience of school be like if they were invited to talk about the things that matter most to them in the classroom, reflect on why those things matter, and connect those things that matter to their school work and vision of their future selves? What if they could explore these different levels of purpose as part of their education and find opportunities at school to discover the path that is most meaningful to them?
By opening the classroom to these purposeful discussions, teachers can get to know students who might come from a different background than their own and bring very different ideas about purpose to school. Student-teacher relationships are more authentic, classrooms are more compassionate, and more students feel a sense of belonging at school.
Malin, H., Reilly, T. S., Quinn, B., & Moran, S. (2014). Adolescent purpose development: Exploring empathy, discovering roles, shifting priorities, and creating pathways. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24(1), 186–199.
Malin, H., Liauw, I., & Damon, W. (2016). Purpose and character development in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(6), 1200-1215.
When does purpose begin? This is a question purpose researchers often hear. Some can’t believe we would expect to find purpose in children or ‘tweens, while others argue that a life of purpose begins at birth.
In our research, we talked with children as young as 11 years old who described having purpose in life. Children this age can have a strong sense of empathy and are perceptive about the suffering they see around them. They feel for the homeless people they see in their town or the bullied students at their school. Often, they want to do something to alleviate that suffering, and when they do it is likely that they get a sense purpose from doing so.
Unfortunately, most of the preteens we talked with were not acting on their feelings of empathy because they felt inhibited by their age. Some said they weren’t allowed to volunteer or weren’t given opportunities to help because they were too young. Others felt they lacked the experience or expertise they would need to take action. Still others didn’t know how they could act on their concerns and lacked role models or mentors who could show them the way.
Despite these obstacles, some preteens do act on their concerns and find purpose in doing so. We consistently find that about 20% of preteens and young teens are driven by a goal to contribute to the world beyond themselves and find ways to act on that goal. They might volunteer at a food bank with their parents, commit to being friendly every day to a student who is excluded at school, start a recycling campaign at school, or donate their allowance to an animal shelter.
Of course, preadolescence is a volatile time in terms of development and identity, and most of those who found purpose in 6th grade were no longer purposeful when we interviewed them again two years later. The most common change for those who were no longer purposeful by 8th grade was a shift in priorities. No longer prioritizing their concern for the suffering of others, they focused instead on spending time with friends and pursuing activities they enjoyed for fun. For most, the lure of the peer group eventually overpowered their empathic concerns.
Those who sustained their purpose throughout middle school were usually influenced by adult role models who showed them how to act on their empathy, or by mentors who recognized their concerns and pointed them to opportunities to take action. Adults who act as role models or mentors are tremendous resources for early purpose development.
So, when does purpose begin? The research suggests that it can emerge in childhood, but that doesn’t mean it stays forever once it appears. Purpose comes and goes and evolves throughout adolescence and even across the lifespan. A child who finds purpose helping animals may lose her sense of purpose then regain it again as an adult, perhaps in providing for her family or creating art, or in several areas of life.
Why does it matter to educators? Adults play an important role in supporting early purpose development by acting as role models and mentors. By showing young people what kinds of opportunities are available to act on their empathic concerns or other prosocial interests, by inviting young people to participate in these activities, or by creating opportunities for young people to take meaningful action to help others, adults show children the possibility of a purposeful life. When children and young teens have these opportunities, they probably won’t lock in to a life-long purpose, but they will gain experience that will enable them to find purpose throughout their life.
Malin, H., Reilly, T. S., Quinn, B., & Moran, S. (2014). Adolescent purpose development: Exploring empathy, discovering roles, shifting priorities, and creating pathways. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24(1), 186–199
Moran, S., Bundick, M., Malin, H., & Reilly, T. (2013). How supportive of their specific purposes do youth believe their family and friends are? Journal of Adolescent Research, 28(3), 348-377