/ Oct 01, 2019

Finding Meaning and Purpose

In this Q & A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a fascinating conversation with William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University, about why it’s so important for teens to develop a sense of purpose. Damon, who is also author of numerous books, including The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life, argues students who have a sense of purpose tend to be happier and perform better in school than classmates who don’t.  

But what is purpose exactly, how can teens cultivate it, and how is this frame of mind any different than simply having a goal? Read Gilbert and Damon’s discussion to learn more. And when you’re done, click the links at the bottom of the page for videos and interactive tools – all designed to help teens figure out their purpose. 

Headshot of William Damon, expert on meaning and purpose in teens

Allison Gilbert: Your research centers on the importance of developing a sense of purpose. First, how are you defining purpose?

William Damon: Purpose reflects two primary notions: that an activity is meaningful to you and that it contributes to the world. To say this another way: Having a sense of purpose means pursuing a long-term goal that has a ‘beyond the self’ component, doing an activity not because you have to, but because you want to. It’s important to note this ‘beyond the self’ component doesn’t have to be altruistic. For instance, researchers contribute to others in the form of scientific discovery. Artists create. Purpose is often confused with meaning, passion, or simply having a goal. While all these words are related, each means something a little different than how I’m defining purpose. 

AG: Why is having purpose essential during adolescence?

WD: Adolescence is the time when young people develop the capacity to look into the future, to determine what kind of lives they want to lead. Developing a sense of purpose helps young people become motivated. It helps them sustain interest in certain classes because they see an end goal they want to attain. This in turn drives resilience. They’re able to bounce back from adversity because that sense of purpose pushes them forward. And last, developing a sense of purpose is important because it prevents people from being self-absorbed. People who see beyond themselves  tend to stay out of trouble. This is important to consider since we want our children to be less tempted by dangerous behavior and substances. 

AG: Can teens have more than one purpose?

WD: Absolutely! People often develop multiple purposes. Purposes can be vocational, faith-based, or about family and community. A vocational purpose could be heroic in scale, such as aiming to find a cure for cancer through medical research, or it could be more ordinary, such as wanting to become a good teacher, plumber, or barber and contributing to the world in one of those valuable ways. A faith-based purpose might be seeking ways to serve God through worship, good works, charity, or any number of spiritual practices. A family purpose can be caring for one’s parents. Community purposes include civic duties and initiatives. Over time, some purposes become more important, others less so. Some may come and go altogether.

People often develop multiple purposes. Purposes can be vocational, faith-based, or about family and community.

AG: What strategies can parents use to help teens develop a sense of purpose?

WD: It’s important parents model purposeful behavior. It’s also important that parents discuss what brings meaning to their own lives, to talk about what they do and why. In a very specific way, I encourage parents to explain how empty life is without meaning, and how much joy can be had by finding meaning. 

I also encourage parents to pay attention to their teen’s interests. Once they discover these interests they can provide opportunities for that child to become engaged in these activities. What parents can not do, however, is give children a sense of purpose. That is personal. It has to come from them.  

AG: You’re the director of Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. What are you currently working on?

WD:  We’re working on two projects right now that are near and dear to my heart. The first is partnering with higher education to determine ways these institutions can promote purpose. We believe fostering a sense of purpose in students should be one of the key functions of higher education. The second project centers on family purpose. Families can have purposes that are collective and multi-generational. What does this look like for wealthy and less advantaged families?  How does a shared family purpose shape individual members of that family? We’re interested to find out.

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