What Is It?

What am I meant to do? What gives my life meaning? How do I want to contribute to the world? These are all questions that get to the heart of purpose. Researchers define purpose in life as a stable sense of commitment to accomplish something that not only is meaningful to you personally, but that also makes a difference in the world beyond yourself.

Take a second to think about why you went into the field of education. You likely have a strong sense of purpose, part of which probably involves helping your students succeed. But have you ever wondered whether each of your students has their own feeling of purpose?

According to research, only about 20% of adolescents have a clear sense of purpose—but those who do tend to be better off in many ways, including higher life satisfaction and levels of happiness.

As an educator, you are in a powerful position to encourage your students’ development of purpose. You maybe notice inclinations and talents that are out of the awareness of students’ parents and even the students themselves. Without intervention, students’ interests may go unrecognized and wither away. Indeed, research has shown that the support of teachers, mentors, and other adults outside the family is often crucial to young people’s development of purpose, particularly in the early stages.

A high school student gets super-excited when learning about blood flow while dissecting frogs. His teacher notices his enthusiasm and tells him that he could pursue his passion, eventually working as a hematologist and helping people who suffer from diseases of the blood.

Why Is It Important?

Studies show that people—especially young people—with a strong sense of purpose are happier, healthier, more motivated, and more resilient. As purpose scholar Kendall Bronk writes, “We can conclude that individuals who lack purpose and meaning in life are likely to show detrimental effects in a wide range of aspects of psychological functioning, and that individuals with a sense of purpose and meaning in life are poised to thrive.”

 

Purpose increases well-being.

 

Purposelessness impairs well-being.

  • On the other hand, people who lack a sense of purpose or meaning in their lives report more boredom, anger, and other negative emotions; they are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, social problems, and even suicidality.

 

Purposeful people are stronger and longer-lived.

 

Students with purpose do better at school.

  • Students with more purposeful goals find their schoolwork more meaningful, probably because they can see how it relates to their future aspirations, and tend to have higher academic achievement. A feeling of purpose in life even seems to protect students from potentially negative influences in their environments.

 

Purpose is a journey, not just a destination.

  • Interestingly, for teens and young adults, just the process of searching for purpose—even if they haven’t found it yet—is associated with greater life satisfaction.

Not sure where to start? Try a practice collection.

Practices

Level
Duration
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Students imagine their lives at 40. (Purpose Challenge Practice #5)
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Students design a tattoo that symbolizes the things that matter most to them. (Purpose Challenge Practice #6)
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Students reach out to trusted adults to ask what they think are students’ strengths and talents. (Purpose Challenge Practice #1)
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 1 hour
Students describe their ideal world and how they might contribute to creating that world. (Purpose Challenge Practice #2)
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Students reflect on how their science learning is relevant to their lives.
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 15 minutes
Students reflect on a Viktor Frankl quote about why meaning in life is important. (Purpose Challenge Practice #3)
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Students use photography or drawing to explore purpose and meaning in their lives.
Middle School, High School, College
Multiple Sessions
A process for helping students generate purposeful projects or endeavors
Middle School, High School
≤ 1 hour
Students choose a quote about purpose and reflect on why it resonates with them. (Purpose Challenge Practice #7)
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Build trust and understanding among students by exploring questions of wonder.
Middle School, High School
Multiple Sessions
Students write about making long-term goals a reality. (Purpose Challenge Practice #8)
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
“The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”
–William Damon