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.