The definitions of “purpose” can vary. Still, all agree that central to the concept is a sustained intention or overarching direction towards a goal or accomplishment that is meaningful to an individual. There is added impact if that goal is also of consequence to the world. While it is often measured through engagement in volunteer activities, it can equally be tied to an academic goal or the practice and pursuit of a particular passion.  

A sense of purpose is not a reflection of intellectual ability, and studies show it is not correlated to a particular socio-economic status, race or gender. It does evolve with age– even the youngest students can be fully engaged in a class service initiative, but it seems particularly tied to a sense of identity in youth. The search for and commitment to a purpose has significant psychological, social, and academic impacts for teenagers.

Psychological impacts included higher self-esteem, improved coping skills, a stronger work ethic, positive identity development and increased motivation to manage the stresses of competing priorities that interfere with the pursuit of their purpose.

Socially, a sense of purpose can provide a sense of connectedness born out of a shared commitment to something meaningful. It can also encourage teenagers to stretch themselves out of their comfort zone but, at the same time, make them less likely to engage in risky behaviours.

But some of the most interesting effects are seen on academic performance.

It turns out that having a sense of purpose– and translating that into a “purposeful mindset” for learning– can improve academic performance and make the necessary drudgery of some learning, if not enjoyable, then at least more bearable. While “project-based” and real-world connectedness of learning is the gold standard, it is not always possible. The relevance of second language verb tense or algebra might not always be clear. But the demonstration of grit– maintaining determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity– has been well studied as a central component of future success and fulfilment. By looking at schoolwork that might seem tedious or meaningless through a “purpose lens,” students can find the motivation to stick with these tasks by attaching them to a broader goal, or purpose that is important to them. 

A series of studies conducted by David Yeager of the University of Texas, David Paunesku of Stanford and Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania found that amplifying a sense of purpose beyond oneself could be a significant inspiration for learning. An intervention that guided students to connect their academic efforts with “pro-social long-term goals”– achieving something that made a difference in the world– made them more successful at completing tasks that seemed “boring but important.”  Another intervention that had teenagers listen to other students speak about connecting their hard work at school to a broader goal– and then had them record their own similar message– saw an increase in GPA months later.  

While the research around the benefits of finding a purpose is clear, how students find and commit to that purpose is anything but.  In fact, the process of searching for purpose can be so disorienting and difficult for teens, sometimes putting them at odds with their parents and peers, that it is linked to low self-esteem.  

So knowing all the benefits, how do we get our kids from here to there?

A study by The Foundation for Professional in Services for Adolescents suggested that all the adults in a youth’s life can play an important role in helping them through the process of searching for and committing to a purpose.  Parents, in particular, can encourage exploration and help bear the stress of the search by listening and supporting their children.  Maintaining an open and non-judgemental channel of communication with their parents helps reduce a teen’s feelings of being disconnected, misunderstood or lacking validation.  Teachers and other adults can provide invaluable support and guidance through their observations, reflections and perspective.  By noticing “this is something you seem really passionate about” or affirming “I see this is something that really affects you,” you can help guide a student along their journey towards finding a sense of purpose.  Encouraging students to join a co-curricular or sports team could help them find a new interest.  Even if in the end, if it is not something they are passionate about, the effort can still be valuable: trying something new gets easier the more you do it. 

“A sense of purpose is something we try very hard to help our students connect with,” says Katie Fraser, Director of Student Success. “The mindset of ‘this is important to me and my future’ is one that we can confidently tie to student success. When students have a personal, healthy and growth mindset their outcomes are better.”