Cultivating a Purpose in Life Among Youth

November 8th, 2017

Seventeen-year-old Caitlyn exhaled a deep breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Staring at the computer screen, she was at a loss. The Common Application college essay questions stared back at her. And, Caitlyn didn’t know where to begin.

Ugh. What prompted my thinking when I questioned a deeply held belief? What activities make me lose track of time? What do I really care about? Why do I want to go to college? What do I want to do with my life??

The questions swirled around in her head, making her heart pound and her palms sweat. But the answers didn’t come.

Like Caitlyn, many young people struggle to answer these questions, and one reason is these questions assume young people have at least an emerging picture of their long-term, most personally meaningful aims in life. They assume teenagers know what they ultimately hope to accomplish in college and beyond. And the truth is, most young people haven’t a clue.

Discovering Purpose

Another way to think about your most personally meaningful goals is to consider your purpose in life. According to researchers, a purpose in life represents a stable and enduring, far-horizon aim that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time is inspired at least in part by a desire to make a difference in the broader world. In other words, it’s how you want to leave your mark. And most young people haven’t figured this out yet. In fact, when we conducted a nationwide study of purpose, we learned that only 1 in 5 high school aged youth and 1 in 3 college aged youth reported having a clear purpose in life.

And this is too bad, because it turns out that leading a life of purpose is a good thing. Scientific investigations into the role of purpose have increased significantly over the past fifteen years, and in that time, a stack of compelling evidence has accumulated suggesting that purpose is associated with both physical and psychological health. Studies find that compared to individuals who lack a purpose in life, those with purpose report lower stress levels, a reduction in chronic pain, and better sleep. Studies even find that individuals with purpose live longer!

And not only do they live longer lives, but they also live more satisfying lives. Compared to individuals without purpose, our research finds that those working toward a personally meaningful aim report being happier, more hopeful, and feeling a greater sense of control over the conditions in their lives.

How You Can Help Youth

So, if leading a life of purpose is such a good thing, why is it so rare? The answer is simple. We—the parents, teachers, and professionals who care about young people—rarely ask them what they want out of their lives. We focus instead on short-term issues: Have you studied for your physics test on Friday? What sports will you play next season? What colleges are you considering? In addition to asking youth about their long-term aims, our research reveals there are 5 things we can do to help young people discover their purpose in life.

  1. Model purpose. Talk about the things that fill your life with purpose. Why did you become a youth pastor? Does working with young people give you purpose? We rarely talk about these things, but doing so can provide young people with a language of purpose and help them reflect on the things that matter most in their lives.
  2. Foster gratitude. When we experience gratitude, we experience a blessing, and we should regularly reflect on the blessings in our lives. Doing so is not only a Christian imperative, but also, according to scientists, a contributor to a more fulfilling life. And, when we receive blessings, it is often because someone else has incurred a cost, whether it is their time, energy, or some other resource. We should reflect on that, too. Focusing on the blessings in our lives and on the people who bless us, our research finds, naturally inclines people to consider the ways they want to give back. This is a key part of a purposeful life.  
  3. Ask young people about their skills and talents. We usually find purpose by applying our strengths. A young person strong in math and science may find purpose in becoming a doctor or nurse and providing compassionate care, whereas a budding musician may find purpose in creating music that moves others.
  4. Ask young people what they hope to change about the world. Rick Warren’s highly-acclaimed book, a Purpose-driven Life, sold over two million copies and spawned a cottage industry of purpose-seeking. The first sentence in his book? “It’s not about you.” A purpose in life is inspired by a desire to contribute to the broader world in some productive way, and to foster purpose, we need to encourage young people to think about how they want to give back.
  5. Talk to young people. And listen. Ask the young people in your congregation to imagine themselves at 40 years of age. Everything has gone according to plan. What will they be doing? Why? What will be important to them? Why? What values and beliefs are most central to who they are? Why? The why part is important. Purpose often emerges from the whys. And then listen. A purpose in life usually comes out in whispers. A comment here, and a question there. Adults need to be listening to hear these soft sounds and encourage them by directing young people to resources that can help them learn more about their emerging interests and purposes.

Not surprisingly, studies reveal that parents play an important role in cultivating youth purpose. But perhaps more surprisingly, studies also find that adults outside the family, including youth pastors and youth volunteers, can also play a particularly important role. When a parent tells a teenager they’re good at something, it generally goes in one ear and out the other. It’s a parent’s job to offer praise. But when a youth pastor says it, teenagers listen. Your words matter, and they can help young people discover the things that that matter most to them.

Purpose Resources

The Greater Good Science Center regularly posts articles that feature the latest scientific findings about the importance of leading a life of purpose. Here are a few of its recent purpose-focused articles:

The college application process provides a natural opportunity for young people to explore their purpose. Through the Purpose Challenge (www.purposechallenge.org), high school students, especially rising juniors and seniors, can complete activities online that will help them discover the values and experiences that give their lives purpose. With a clearer sense of purpose, students then are guided through writing a purpose-focused college essay, and in addition to submitting these essays to their colleges of choice, they can submit them online for a chance to win up to $25,000 in a college scholarship.

Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk is an associate professor of psychology at the Claremont Graduate University, where she studies the things that give young people’s lives purpose. She teamed up with the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and social impact firm, Prosocial with support from the John Templeton Foundation, to translate research on purpose into a toolkit called the Purpose Challenge, which youth can use to explore their own purpose in life.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.