Research suggests that young people rarely have a sense of purpose—but we can take steps to help them cultivate it.
BY KENDALL COTTON BRONK | DECEMBER 21, 2017
My research over the past fifteen years has focused on young people’s purposes in life. My colleagues and I have explored the things that inspire purpose in the lives of youth; we’ve studied the way purposes develop; and, we’ve investigated the difference it makes for youth to lead lives of purpose.
Over a decade and a half of work, at least two important findings have emerged. First, we’ve learned that leading a life of purpose is beneficial in more ways than one. Purpose is associated with physical health, including better sleep, less chronic pain, and longer lives; and psychological health, including hope, happiness, and life satisfaction. The second thing we’ve learned is that the experience is rare. Only about one in five high schoolers and one in three college-aged youth reports leading a life of purpose.
Taking these findings together—that leading a life of purpose is a beneficial but rare experience—members of my Adolescent Moral Development lab and I began to explore ways of fostering purpose among young people. In the process, we learned a lot about how young people identify meaningful, long-term goals that allow them to contribute to the broader world. Below I outline five empirically based approaches parents and mentors can use to help youth discover a personally meaningful direction in life.