Stanford education professor William Damon says research shows that while young people sometimes struggle with a sense of purpose, they are likely to find it in concrete, action-oriented goals. Encouraging a sense of meaning and reason in young people also results in a "beyond-the-self" way of orienting themselves to the world, says a Stanford researcher
But while service to others can build a purpose-building capacity that endures into later life, said William Damon, a teacher in education and director of the Stanford Centre on Adolescence, these activities should be something a young person really enjoys and finds appealing – not just compulsory work.
Damon's research examines how youth build meaning in their relationships with the civic, job, family, and culture. Recently the Stanford News Service interviewed him on the subject:
What does your research show about how to encourage a sense of purpose and meaning among young people?
There are a few main insights which lead young people to begin their quest for purpose. Firstly, the realization that there is a need for action in the world. This could be some sort of crisis or shortage – like, for example, some people die from cancer or some people go hungry from lack of food – or it could simply be that there are items that can be changed or produced by new efforts. The second discovery is that young people believe they can make these attempts, and would genuinely enjoy doing so if given the opportunity.
Do young people struggle with purpose and meaning?
Of course, as plenty of people do later in life. Purpose involves both a personal desire to accomplish something significant to the self, and a determination to take the required steps to do so. Some people are suffering because they believe their lives are full of mandatory acts which have no personal meaning. Others are suffering as they have difficulty forming a course of action which they can stick to. Such problems can occur at any age, but particularly young people may struggle with them – some because they feel compelled to participate in futile behaviours, and others because they have not yet learned how to follow up expectations with effective acts.
What are some of the most popular purposeful interests for young people?
Some are motivated by family reasons (bringing up a child, caring for an extended family); others by professional purposes (becoming a doctor, teacher, army officer, etc.); some by religion (serving God or some transcendent cause); and others by the arts, sports or civic duty. Through our research we found a variety of young people with civic objectives such as fighting for a common cause or contributing to their communities' improvement; but we found few aspiring to civic leadership. Whether this is a phenomenon among the youth of today, it presages a problem for our democracy's future, as a stable democratic society relies on strong leadership in every new generation.
Is encouraging purpose and meaning a worthy educational goal?
The aim is the pre-eminent long-term learning and achievement motivator. Any school that fails to promote meaning among its students’ risks being indifferent to the choices they make in their lives. Schools that foster intention will see their students become motivated, attentive and resilient when faced with difficulties and obstacles.
How can adults, teachers and parents help educate the young about purpose and meaning?
Parents, teachers and other adults are able to promote sparks of understanding. We also found that purposeful youth had opportunities to observe respected people in their lives who were themselves seeking ends they believed in. Parents should model a commitment toward a purposeful aim for the kid. Rarely, however, did we find that in clear guidance from parents or other adults purposeful young people seek their choices. Young people prefer instead to select from the menu of choices to which parents, teachers, and other adults are exposed. So, one thing adults should do for youth is to present them with a full spectrum of possibilities that resonate with the "sparks" that the youth convey. Adults ought to be good listeners as young people express their desires to be of assistance.
Adults should also accept the decisions young people make on their own – all the purposeful young people we've been researching said their parents ultimately embraced and welcomed the reasons they chose.
Is it more challenging in today’s world for young people to focus on purpose and meaning?
For young people it's a challenging time to find purpose. Choices about where to live, what kinds of careers to pursue, how to spend one 's time and what kinds of interpersonal arrangements are possible and desirable have expanded tremendously in our own society from earlier ages. While the existence of so many options can be empowering, it can also be daunting for a young person to encounter them first.
Choices can generate confusion which can be scary. In earlier days, when big vocation, family, and community choices were settled by age 20 or so, there was less room for agonizing about what to do in life than there is in our day, when many youths are still looking at age 30 or later. Yet my understanding is that such delay is not itself a concern, as long as there is learning and movement forwards during this prolonged time of choice. Such delay, in fact, offers for many the opportunity to make sounder and more interesting choices about the kinds of lives they want to lead and the kinds of people they want to be.