How Can We Encourage a Sense of Purpose and Meaning Early in Life?

When adults talk about purpose, sometimes it sounds like a remote and ethereal ideal that dwells only in people with elevated dreams and grand ambitions. Because the term is often used in ways that young people might find foreign or daunting, we rarely use the word “purpose” in our research interviews, even though this is exactly our focus of interest. Instead, we ask young people questions about what matters to them, what they would like to accomplish in life, what’s important to them, and other analogous questions that circle indirectly around the idea of purpose without using the lofty (and perhaps intimidating) term itself.

Yet despite the lofty nature of the word, purpose as it plays out in real life can be highly concrete and action-oriented. In its everyday forms, purpose can be easy to talk about with young people. Young people enjoy thinking about purposeful activities they can engage in, now and in the future. For this reason, it can be a pleasure to explore purposeful ideas with the young. Also for this same reason, encouraging a sense of purpose in young people is a feasible (and decidedly worthwhile) educational goal.

“It’s not about you”

One of the defining hallmarks of purpose was captured by Pastor Rick Warren in the first line of his hugely popular book The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not about you.” In whatever form purpose emerges, it has a beyond-the-self (some call it “transcendent”) dimension that endows it with a special place in human affairs. Now, once again, using a term such as “transcendent” may sound like a non-starter when it comes to communicating with the young. But when presented in terms of concrete actions that a young person can perform, a “beyond-the-self” way of orienting to the world not only can be understandable but actually appealing to a young person. It also can be an important contributor to the young person’s character development.

Consider a simple example, so familiar that it may sound a bit old-fashioned. As early as ages four or five, a child can be asked to take part in household responsibilities, such as watering the plants or feeding a pet. (In the old days, such activities were called “chores,” a term that did not add much to their charm). When children help out with such household tasks, they acquire a sense of service to their families. Eventually this sense of service generalizes to other sectors of the world beyond the self. Children take pride in what they accomplish through such activities: they can see the plant or the pet thrive under their care. Service to others and pride in one’s work can help build a sense of purpose, even when experienced in the rudimentary form of childhood responsibilities.

But purpose is more than service to others; and the example of chipping in on household chores (which, after all, can feel like drudgery at times) does not capture the exhilaration that can accompany a purposeful experience. In addition to its engagement in the world beyond the self, a purposeful activity is always meaningful to the self. It is mainly this sense of meaning that makes the activity interesting and motivating for the child. Although children can be made to do things that adults believe are in their interest, no one can force a child to do something with a sense of purpose. A child may perform an action out of necessity, but if the child does not find the action meaningful, it will not continue as a stable purpose.

Nurture a young person’s “sparks”

Parents and teachers can benefit greatly in their efforts to educate the young by taking note of this feature of purpose. As the youth development trailblazer Peter Benson wrote, adults can contribute more to a young person’s search for purpose by nurturing the young person’s own “sparks” than by trying to transplant their own interests into the young person. Adults can (and should) introduce a child to activities that may become purposeful; but only the child can decide which activities will have enough personal meaning to eventually develop into true purposes.

And this is exactly what we found in our own research with purposeful youth. Our young subjects expressed a wide array of purposeful interests and aspirations. Some were motivated by family purposes (raising a family, caring for an extended family); others directed themselves to vocational purposes (becoming a doctor, teacher, army officer, and so on); others were driven by faith (serving God); and others by the arts, sports, civic duty, or a host of other causes. Rarely, however, did purposeful youngsters attribute their choices to direct instructions from parents or other adults. Rather, they chose from the menu of options that they had encountered in growing up. One thing, therefore, that adults can do for young people is to present them with a full palette of possibilities that align with the “sparks” that the young people express. For adults, this means being good listeners when the young people discuss their interests, as well as being resourceful in providing ways for young people to develop their interests into mature purposes. Although not many young people attribute the objects of their purposes to their parents, virtually all the purposeful youngsters that we studied said that their parents eventually supported and encouraged the purposes that they chose. We took this as a sign that such support is needed. Sometimes it took parents a while to come around: one high-powered couple did not appreciate their son’s choice to become a sauce chef in a French restaurant; but eventually they recognized their son’s genuine passion and provided the boy with the resources he needed to acquire the skills required by his chosen calling.

We also found that purposeful youth had chances to observe admired people in their lives who themselves were pursuing purposes they believed in. This is an area where parents can have an especially strong influence, by modeling for the child a dedication to a purposeful goal. Many parents do not communicate sufficiently with their children to take advantage of this opportunity. When all a child knows about a parent’s occupation is that the parent’s work is “entering things into a computer,” this not enough to provide the child with a compelling example of purpose. On the other hand, if the child learns in the course of a family conversation that, say, those computer entries resulted in a truckload of fish being delivered to Nashville last week, the child may share in the parent’s pride of work and may be inspired to follow suit – in, of course, the child’s own way, on the child’s own turf.

Teachers, too, can provide students with examples of purpose in the ways they comport themselves in the classroom. I often mention to teachers that one golden (but too often neglected) opportunity to do this is to tell students why they chose teaching as a profession, what they find to be fulfilling about teaching, and what they hope to accomplish with their students. The point of doing this is not to persuade their students to become teachers (students will make their own occupational choices), but rather to demonstrate what it looks like for admired adults to pursue an occupation with purpose.

Along the same lines, teachers can interject into the curriculum stories about the life choices of those who created the knowledge that students are learning about in school. When, for example, young people hear about the dedication, persistence, and creativity of the scientists who unravel secrets of the universe, not only does this brings scientific knowledge to life, but it also provides young people with models of purposeful work. A similar principle applies to every field of knowledge that is taught in the classroom; it applies with special force to the field of history, which offers teachers countless opportunities to inspire students with cases of purposeful men and women who built the best traditions in our civilized societies.

Children must acquire their own aspirations

Observing purposeful role models can be inspiring for children, but in order find their own purposes, children must acquire their own personal aspirations. We found that purposeful young people had aspirations that were stimulated by two recognitions: 1) there is something in the world that needs to be sustained or improved; and 2) I can contribute something to this effort. The first recognition provides the young person with a specific purpose; the second provides the young person with the confidence to pursue the purpose. The range of possible ways to sustain and improve the world, of course, is enormous, including everything from life-saving endeavors such as medicine and national defense to aesthetic efforts such as creating more beautiful art and music. In our studies of purposeful young people, we found the entire gamut, as reflected by the diverse varieties of purpose (family, work, faith, and many others) that I noted above.

Purposefulness is a capacity that promotes vigor, resilience, and determination. As with all important life capacities, purposefulness develops through a combination of social supports and individual initiative. This essay focuses on the early development of purpose – a worthwhile focus, because an early start is usually the surest way to attain any capacity. But it is important to note that it is never too late to acquire a purpose. Indeed, for most of our present population, full purposefulness is rare prior to adulthood: in our studies, we found only one in five young people to be fully purposeful by age 22, and even by their late 20’s many were still searching. This may be a consequence of the increasingly complex choices that young people now face in our rapidly changing world; but whatever the reason, it makes purpose one of the late-developing capacities in the human repertoire.

Nor should the search for purpose ever cease. As people age, they take on new missions, new aspirations, and new causes to dedicate themselves to: this is one of the hallmarks of healthy aging. In so doing, they draw continuously on the capacities for purposefulness that they develop earlier in life. In this way, the accomplishments of the early years can set the stage for an entire life of meaning and fulfillment.

Discussion questions:

1. Children have many fleeting interests that come and go daily. What turns some of them into true purposes that can provide a sense of direction in life?

2. Is the developmental task of finding purpose different in significant ways than it was in the past?

3. What are the best ways for an adult to help a young person who wishes to contribute to the world but cannot decide what to do to pursue this desire?

Discussion Summary

My essay, How can we encourage a sense of purpose and meaning early in life?” is based on a ten-year program of research that we have been conducting at the Stanford Center on Adolescence. In studying the development of purpose, we always focus on two essential components of purposefulness: its “beyond-the self” quality, and its quality of having authentic personal meaning for the self. Combining these two qualities in the pursuit of life goals is a consequential developmental achievement. This is why purpose is a relatively late landmark in human development. Even by the end of adolescence, most young people are still searching for purposes they can fully commit themselves to; and for most people, the search for new purposes can continue for a lifetime.

All of the comments that we received acknowledged the challenge of finding purposes (especially noble ones) at any point in life. Several comments suggested procedures and forces that can aid in this task. For example, there were interesting queries about the role of extrinsic incentives (such as merit badges, good grades, and other such rewards) in motivating activities that might lead to purposeful commitments. In my responses to such suggestions, I emphasized that these kinds of extrinsic incentives can indeed play a constructive role in fostering purpose. This is a point that is important to make in the context of educational theory and practice today, because many in the field of education have been confused about this, assuming that extrinsic and intrinsic incentives are necessarily in opposition to one another. In my responses, I referred to decades-old research (often replicated) showing that a moderate amount of extrinsic rewards can provoke a positive interest in learning, which then becomes intrinsically rewarding in itself. I also pointed out, on the other hand, that excessive rewards often have a counter effect, drowning out the interest in learning. As one of the commenters put it, “if the extrinsic reward becomes the end-in-itself, we have failed.”

Another commenter alluded to the power of prayer in aiding the search for purpose. This is something that I have observed in studies of moral exemplars that I have done with my spouse Anne Colby. We cite many such examples in our forthcoming book The Power of Ideals (Oxford University press, to be released May 2015). In this book, we document cases of widely-admired 20th Century world leaders who prayed to align their daily choices with the noble purposes that they felt called to pursue. In the book, we also point out that the practice of prayer is as relevant to the smallest acts of ordinary life as it is to the heroic acts of renowned world leaders.

Regarding heroic acts, there also were comments about the meaning of heroism in our times, and the implications of this to the contemporary search for purpose. I mostly agreed with the comment that “our cultural heroes today tend to be flawed – athletes, billionaires, politicians, or celebrities of questionable character,” although this is something of an overgeneralization (our culture also celebrates genuine heroes such as Nelson Mandela, but not as frequently as the glitzy rogues and scoundrels who dominate our movies and news stories). The commenter was right to be concerned about the effects of designating the wrong people as heroes. I agree that the heroes of a culture influence the choices that young people will make, and that in educating our young, we need to celebrate heroes that represent virtuous behavior and elevated values.

Finally, there were some astute comments underlining the complexity of the challenge of finding purposes that one can truly commit to over extended periods of time. These above all are immensely personal challenges: all persons must approach them in their own individual ways. As one commenter correctly points out, no doubt there are genetic influences on how all individuals approach their own unique searches. I responded, however, that such genetic influences always interact in a dynamic fashion with a person’s context, experience, and consciously-chosen goals and intentions. How this works, exactly, is a question that remains at the forefront of scientific investigation at the present time; and the commenter, realizing this, concluded that “we need to do a lot more research and find sets of formulae where we suggest that for this kind of complex of individualistic character this is the package of education and development efforts we recommend. Clearly there will be different packages of action  for the different kinds of groups of individuals.” I wholeheartedly agree with, and second, this conclusion.

But I do not wish to end my summary with a call (however justified) for further research, because as long ago as graduate school I was taught to avoid ending papers in this way. Instead, I will end by asserting that, whatever the deficits in the present state of our scientific knowledge, we now know enough to educate young people in ways that will promote their search for noble purposes. We know about the importance of listening for their sparks of interest; we know about the importance of mentoring; we know about the importance of presenting academic subjects in personally meaningful fashions; we know about the importance of engaging young people in the kinds of activities that build a sense of service and civic responsibility; and we know about the importance of cultivating good behavioral habits that manifest moral virtue as the young person develops. In all these ways and more, we know enough to improve our educational practices so that they encourage – rather than detract from – students’ searches for purposes they will pursue. It is our responsibility as educators to act on this knowledge.

New Big Questions

1) In the effort to promote purposefulness among students, how can educators take into account the individual characteristics of particular students?

2) How do genetic predispositions affect the paths to purpose that different young people might take?

18 Responses

  1. George Gantz says:

    Thanks for the delightful and thought-provoking essay.  It is indeed troubling to see some of the difficulty those in younger generations are facing due to “increasingly complex choices” and hyper-stimulation from new technologies that seem to reduce opportunities for self-knowledge, self-integration and the development of an autonomous sense of purpose.  

    Your comments reminded me of my experience as an adult leader with the Boys Scouts, which, in my experience, offers an excellent program for the inculcation of values and purpose in young men.  One of the things that struck me about the Scouting program is that it is aimed at the very highest of goals in the development of a strong moral compass, leadership and citizenship, but it does so through a multi-stage series of simple, practical and interesting teaching units.  Each teaching unit is buit into a framework of progressive awards (advancement in rank and merit badges) that are quite achievable and build a sense of accomplishment, but they are focused on content, like camping, hobbies and sports, that are intrinsically attractive to the boys.  

    This system drew the boys (including my own) into a process that ultimately leads to an extremely rich and powerful curriculum including moral values, citizenship and leadership that helps instill the sense of purpose you are talking about.  I taught several of the required merit badges for Eagle Scout (Family Life, Personal Fitness, Personal Management) and found the information and practices required for those awards to be very valuable – a life-learning experinece for me as well the young men I taught.  At the same time, the incentives to the boys for completing this curriculum was NOT the attainment of morals and character but the tangible rewards (lots of badges, positive peer and social recognition) of becoming an Eagle Scout.  This may explain why many Eagle Scouts have said that this achievement meant more to them than their college degree.

    One of the lessons is that we cannot force character and purpose onto young people directly.  I have found that the more I “lectured” my Scouts, and the more I “leaned into” my children on those issues, the less impact I had.  Rather, like the Scouting program, we need to draw them into processes and activities that help them build their own character and purpose.

  2. William Damon says:

    Thank you very much for your informative comment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that scouting has contributed in a major positive way to a person’s character growth, for exactly the reasons that you mention: I’ve heard this from distinguished leaders in many fields, including business and the professions. Clearly the high expectations of advanced scouting, such as at the Eagle Scout level, can be a facilitator of strong character.

    Also, your comment gets to a point that I’ve often made in my writings: there is no necessary conflict between extrinsic incentives, such as badges, and internal capacities such as purposefulness. Extrinsic rewards in themselves may not be sufficient to promote purpose and other character strengths, but they can play a constructive role in focusing the young person’s attention on the right goals. There is some confusion about this in the field of education today, but research supports the views that you have stated.

    • George Gantz says:

      Absolutely – if the extrinsic reward becomes the end-in-itself, we have failed.  Unfortunately our social norms seem so focussed on financial and material measures of success (extrinsic rewards) that the sense of higher purpose (intrinsic reward) does not get a chance to flourish.

      I like the quote from Becker.  I believe young men, in particular, have a biologically-determined intrinsic need for a heroic mythos that includes physical risk-taking, and this is a key for helping them build a strong sense of purpose.  Our cultural heroes today tend to be flawed – atheletes, self-made billionaires, politicians or celebrities of questionable character.  Even our superheroes are portrayed as nuanced and troubled misfits.  Does this tend to increase the romanticism of extremist options where doubt is erased and heroism guaranteed?  Perhaps we need to work to re-romanticise the heroism of people doing good deeds and good works (there are plenty of them) – and to avoid the tendancy of culture and media to undermine these good stories by hyperfocusing on the protagonists flaws in order to tear the down.

      • William Damon says:

        Yes, in my opinion you are right on all counts. Well-established research in developmental science has shown that when rewards become too “salient,” they lose their educational effectiveness. Moderate incentives can guide a person’s behavior in ways that enhance learning, but when the rewards become so extravagent that they are all the person thinks about, they no longer serve a useful role in long-term behavioral development. This research was done decades ago and has held up well over the years.

        On the heroes issue, I have had the same thoughts that you have expressed so well. The heroes that a culture chooses to celebrate (and, related to this, the virtues that the culture values) strongly influence the choices that young people will make. We need to do everything we can to promote the right kinds of heroes in our time, heroes that represent virtuous behavior and good values.

      • sam.ruppo says:

        Good day,

        I would like to ask you – what do you think would be the cause of an extrinsic reward succeeding in the role of leading the person to seek his/her intrinsic rewards? What would contribute to failing in this regard, the extrinsic reward becoming an end-in-itself?

        • William Damon says:

          When extrinsic rewards are too lavish, they fail to promote long-term behavioral change, because they soak up all the person’s attention. The classic research on this was done by psychologist Mark Lepper back in the 1970’s. Lepper proposed a “minimal sufficiency principle”: extrinsic rewards work best to encourage learning when they are minimally sufficient to guide a perspon’s behavior. If the rewards are too small, they will have no effect; and if the rewards are too large, they drown out the person’s interest in learning. Of course in any situation, with any particular individual, the degree of extrinsic reward that will be minimally sufficient must be determined. The principle does not supply that information. But the principle can serve as a useful reminder that  rewards can play a constructive role in education if they are employed in limited and modest ways.

          • George Gantz says:

            Perhaps one can view it this way.  If the extrinsic reward is enough to lure the cognitive mind without triggering a strong limbic (emotional) response, then there will be an emotional “space” for the intrinsic rewards – job well done; sense of accomplishment; positive empathic feedback for a good deed – to flow in.  If the extrinsic reward is too large, it will engage the limbic as well as the rational and the intrinsic rewards will never flow in.   

  3. William Hurlbut says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay.  Regarding question #2, the quote below may be of interest:

    Human beings are capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But they have to feel and believe that what they are doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful. The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up … the problem of heroics is the central one of human life.”

    — Ernest Becker, Denial of Death

    • William Damon says:

      Thanks very much for posting this fascinating quote from Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. I haven’t read the book, but now I am interested in doing so. The question of heroism in the modern age is an important one that I haven’t worked on myself, but a colleague of mine, Tod Lindberg, has written a book about this issue that will be published soon. His book is entitled The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern. I think this will be a book very much worth watching out for. Thanks again for raising this question with the Becker quote.

  4. harry says:

    As a 7 year old taught by Catholic nuns, I was made to memorize the answers to questions in the  Baltimore Catechism. One of the first items:

    Q. Why did God make you?

    A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.

    If you believe in God, and you believe He created you to serve His purposes during your life on this Earth, and you believe it is no accident that you were born in the times in which you find yourself and not in some other century, and that it was all in God’s omniscient providence that the people in your life are there, then the the question of purpose becomes a prayer: “Lord, let me be for these people who  you wanted me to be for them.”  It is not arrogant at all to think of God looking over all of history from beginning to end and deciding that He absolutely needed precisely you in the time and place in which you find yourself, to bring His goodness to the people in your life as only  you can do.

    • William Damon says:

      Thank you for offering this moving expression of theological wisdom. Statements such as this provide a rich sense of how each of us can serve other people through the particular purposes that we find – and how prayer can guide us in this search. It’s noteworthy that you have remembered this good statement so well after all these years.

  5. abed.peerally says:

    This is an interesting article and a profound one too which as W. D. fully realises is a difficult one to address comprehensively. While in a superficial way one can equate the development of a sense of purpose to education at home and at school, at a much more focused level one cannot generalise either about the effective of  education for developing a sense of purpose. Each human is exceptional and has his way of looking at life and existence right from early childhood. So the point I wish to emphasize is that there is a strong element of individualistic outlook determined by heredity which means that to improve humanity by education and developing a sense of purpose is a huge challenge. We only need to look at the behaviour of our boys and girls around the world to see how more and more chaotic life is turning out to be. So my conclusion on this complexity is that we need to do a lot more research and find sets of formulae where we suggest that for this kind of complex of individualistic character this is the package of education and development efforts we recommend. Clearly there wiill be different packages of action  for the different kinds of groups of individuals. Developing of a sense of purpose is a daunting task.

  6. derick wilson says:

    1. Children have many fleeting interests that come and go daily. What turns some of them into true purposes that can provide a sense of direction in life?

    For me, as an educator in a post conflict society (Northern Ireland), children and young people need to be surrounded by informal  and formal educators who are ‘hope filled’-people-parents, relatives, carers, teachers, play and youth workers, who know in their being that change is possible and that children and young people, in finding purpose, are part of laying down that change.

    2. Is the developmental task of finding purpose different in significant ways than it was in the past?

    WIth colleagues over many years in the Corrymeela Community of reconciliation, I draw heavily on the work of Rene Girard -we are formed out of relationships, we are deeply relational people. In the current world  where so much technology dominates, and is useful, it is also useful and important to re-assert the importance of children and young people being surrounded relationally by people, institutions and settings that know deeply about the importance of modelling relational ways of being with one another and that build ease with different others. Such relationships do not bring people into compulsive rivalry and destructive behaviours but hold different others respectfully, honouring them and being honoured by others in return.

    3. What are the best ways for an adult to help a young person who wishes to contribute to the world but cannot decide what to do to pursue this desire?

    Young people need the space and time to struggle and seek their own ways. They need to experience others who model freedom and the possibility to make informed choices in their relationships with them. They need adults and supportive others who do not complicate their lives by filling their relationships with chaotic emotional demands. Young people need adults and supportive others who model respect in their relationships and who do not place impossible demands on them or set impossible standards that only become depressing for them as they strive to meet our demands, because they may love us or respect us. 

    The hope filled parent, carer, informal or formal educator, gives children and young people a safe space in which to explore their relationships and their possibilities and honours them as they take responsible decisions. In such manners young people find purpose and meaning; in such ways they find their ‘moral compass’ and move, with others, to be agents of change, people with a purpose. In such steps young people lay down new patterns of living in societies such as mine-patterns of living ‘in communion for and with others” rather than feeding old ways of being prepared to “sacrifice others different to us”, feeding distrust and separation.

    Derick WIlson  Emeritus Reader in Education, University of Ulster

  7. louisbrassard7@gmail.com7 says:

    I agree with all the strategies sudgested to encourage purpose in the child.  But I did not see in these strategies the encouragement of the experiential activities.  Natural obsevation of nature.  Encouraging craftmanship and play of all sort.  In this outerly unpurposefull experiential exploration of the world, the young will discover what really interest him/her, will reveal to her/him what he/she about and what she/he can best contribute.  Unpurposefull activities , pure enjoyable activities,  natural unstructured artistic activities of the young has to be promoted and wil be the ground from which explicitly purposefull activities will later grow.


  8. William Damon says:

    Yes, I have always believed that education in general works best when it takes into account the unique characteristics of each individual student. This applies doubly to educating for purpose, since not only is each student a unique individual, but the path to purpose for every person takes its own turns, many of which are happenstance and wholly unpredicable. It’s true, as you say, that genetics plays a special role in shaping the particular characterictics of every individual. But I would add that genetics don’t work in a vacuum: all behavior, from the earliest weeks of life, reflects a dynamic interaction between genetic disposition, context, and experience. Education can be a constructive part of this mix when it come to encouraging a sense of purpose in young people,

  9. William Damon says:

    Thank you for your informative and thoughtful answers to the discussion questions that I posed. Your desciption of  the Northern Ireland context (which I am not familar with) was especially interesting for me.  It is a pleasure to learn about the way purpose develops in parts of the world that I have never seen, so I very much appreciate the insights you offered.

  10. William Damon says:

    Your comment made me think of how many of my university students these days have been working on ideas about how education can use nature to promote human development. This approach has rarely been explored in mainstream education, but, judging from the interests of many student educators, its time may have come.  And yes, play and other unstructured activities can contribute importantly to the child’s search for meaning, an essential componant of purpose.

    • George Gantz says:

      Thanks for the excellent discussion. On the subject of Play, I recommend the important book by Stuart Brown:  Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.  While play may be spontaneous  and “purposeless” it draws on and shapes our passion and joy – and from it we learn meaning and purpose.