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