Purpose

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

—Helen Keller

Why does purpose matter?

Your purpose is good for the world; it drives you to contribute something positive, in line with your own interests and strengths. And pursuing a purpose gives your life direction and forward momentum; it motivates and guides your short-term goals and daily activities. With a strong sense of purpose, you flourish: you enjoy a more meaningful life, are healthier and more resilient to setbacks, live more energetically, and feel good about what you’ve accomplished.

Pulse Check

Think about how yourself. How many of these things are true?

  • I often think about what matters most to me and why it matters.

  • I often reflect on my goals and the kind of person I want to be.

  • I often think about what I can offer the world through my own particular strengths and gifts, reflecting on what the world needs as well as my own interests.

  • When I plan my daily activities, I’m mindful of the consequential things I want to accomplish with my life.

  • I look for ways to have positive effects on others’ lives.

How do I encourage purpose in others?

Model it. Reflect on your own purpose, demonstrate it through your actions, and talk about it. Express your important goals and why they are important to you. Engage in contributing activities, such as meaningful work, volunteering or donating to charity, and invite young people to participate with you. As a family or in the classroom, establish the expectation that everyone should figure out how to contribute to the world.

Celebrate it. Encourage interests that are personally meaningful to the child and support the child’s long-term goals. Praise and support beyond-the-self concerns and actions. Offer feedback that lets children know the impact of their purposeful action and what was effective about it.

Enable it. Create the space for young people to talk about their values, who they are and the kinds of people they want to be, and what they want their lives to contribute. Notice sparks of potential purpose in children’s interests and abiding concerns, and guide them to real-world opportunities to act on their interests and concerns.


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About the Authors

Heather Malin is a senior research scholar at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, where she conducts research on youth purpose development. She is the author of Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning. Prior to her career in research, she taught K-12 students in schools and out-of-school programs and provided pre-service and in-service teacher training. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and an MA from Teachers College Columbia University.

William Damon is Professor of Education at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. He is the author of The Path to Purpose, Noble Purpose, and several other writings on the development of purpose across the lifespan. Damon's other books include Greater Expectations (winner of the Parent's Choice Book Award); Some Do Care: Lives of Moral Commitment (with Anne Colby); and Good Work (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Damon is a member of the National Academy of Education and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014.


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