Does Finding Your Purpose Matter?

The numbers are in and they are not looking good. A 2017 gallup poll shows a sharp decline in student reported engagement from 74% of students feeling engaged in grade 5, dropping to only 34% of students feeling engaged by grade 12. Nearly all teens agree that most of what high school teaches is irrelevant to their lives outside of school and to their future careers. But, this begs the question: Why should we care about what a high school student thinks? 

Fortunately, the answer is quite simple, a curious learner is a motivated and engaged learner. With boredom and burnout, come disengaged, unimpassioned students who are unwilling to put the effort needed into their education. 

The Developmental Perks of Being Young

While being a teenager is indisputably challenging, the stage of life in which they find themselves, comes with perks. Teenagers have a natural drive to seek new experiences and have a greater ability to experience awe—that feeling of deep wonder and connection to something greater. 

This supercharged curiosity and urge to seek novel and innovative experiences may be one of the keys to helping students find a sense of purpose in life.

Does having a sense of purpose really matter? 

The development of purpose is intricately interwoven with the development of personal identity. Research shows that teens and young adults that seek purpose report higher life satisfaction and levels of happiness. New research even suggests that a feeling of purpose in young people is associated with better physical health

Finding purpose in life is inherently tied to intrinsic motivation. William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.” 

Embarking on a voyage of discovery to find purpose is critical during the teenage years and will pave the way to finding satisfaction and meaning in life beyond school.

How can we help you find it?

There are tried and true ways for educators to facilitate “purpose-seeking” experiences for teenagers. These experiences are made up of three critical components which include an important life event, serving others in a meaningful way, and changes in circumstance. 

Kendall Cotton Bronk, leading researcher on youth development, gives us another way to look at it. In her book, Purpose in Life: A Critical Component of Optimal Youth Development, she states that purpose has four defining features: dedicated commitment, personal meaningfulness, goal-directedness, and a vision greater than self.

Everyone has their own story, but there are a few experiences that are common among people who have discovered their purpose:

  1. Travel abroad
  2. Extended time in the natural world
  3. Involvement in a meaningful social change project
  4. A contemplative practice

Each of these experiences could be a significant life event. A trip abroad and service trip, often combined, focus on serving others in a meaningful way. A contemplative retreat and wilderness trip intentionally change life circumstances; creating the space for finding purpose. 

Does curiosity have an impact on learning?

In a 2014 study, researchers looked at how curiosity affected a person’s ability to learn and retain new information.  Finding passion in life sets the stage for curious exploration. 

People know the phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat,” however, the proverb does not end there. Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back. In full, the deep desire to learn or understand something, and not being able to, is excruciating, but the satisfaction of working for understanding brings us back to life.

Researchers also found that people were able to better recall information they were curious about, because curiosity evokes an emotional response. Emotion allows people to better recall the information they felt curious about after a 24 hour period. The ability to both answer questions correctly, and learn and retain new information, is enhanced by curiosity.  

What does this mean for students?

Caring about and supporting the purpose finding journey allows us to step back, combat boredom, and approach learning in new ways. Helping teenagers seek contemplative practices and capitalizing on their curiosity supports academic learning, in addition to improving mental and emotional health. Intentional practices provide students with a way to stay engaged and personally invested in their own education.

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