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The Benefits of Helping Teens Identify Their Purpose in Life

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It’s 12:15 p.m. on a Tuesday in December and 30 students gather for an unusual class at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, a public high school located in one of the country’s poorest Congressional districts. Two seniors, who have been trained to lead the class, are presiding over today’s session on the theme of interpersonal connection. They project a slide on a topic of near-universal interest to teenagers – social media. It asks, “How connected are we?” and then presents three provocative quotes for students to contemplate:

  • “We live in a society where looking cool in pictures has become more important than being a genuine person.”
  • “We are all now connected by the Internet like neurons in a giant brain.”
  • “Social media and technology are not agents of change. They are just tools. We the connected people are the agents of change.”

A lively discussion soon erupts over the pluses and minuses of social media. The students touch on privacy, cyberbullying, false and true identity, and the quality of friendships sustained and snuffed on Instagram and SnapChat. They circle around the issue of trust and the risk of being shamed for secrets they’ve shared. Tiny freshmen hold their own with burly seniors, all of them tidily turned out in the school uniform of gray and navy with striped ties for both girls and boys. Welcome to the QUESTion Project, a semester-long elective designed to give adolescents a space in which to wrestle with big questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most in their journey through life.

The three-year-old program, now offered in six public schools (five in New York City and one in Los Angeles) is part of a movement within a movement. In the past decade or so, a growing number of schools have adopted curricula on social and emotional learning, including an emphasis on growth mindsets (as defined by psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford) and developing a stick-to-it quality called grit (as explored by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania). The QUESTion Project and like-minded programs such as the Future Project and Project Wayfinder focus on something a little more abstract and, arguably, profound: finding a sense of purpose.

Research and scholarship on “purpose” has gained momentum in recent years, converging from developmental psychology, moral philosophy, positive psychology and other directions. Its application to the world of adolescent education owes much to the work of Stanford psychologist William Damon, who, together with colleagues Jenni Menon and Kendall Cotton Bronk, developed this definition of purpose back in 2003: “A stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”


While definitions vary a bit from study to study, researchers have linked a sense of purpose to lower levels of adolescent depression, less binge drinking and drug abuse, healthier habits such as exercising, and a greater commitment to schoolwork. Adults with a sense of purpose report greater satisfaction with life.

Unfortunately, research also suggests that purpose is rare. “Most young people and even most adults don’t have a purpose in their life,” says Bronk, now an associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. A 2009 study involving 237 young people found that only 17 percent of high school freshman have a sense of purpose, and just 23 percent of seniors do, though more than 40 percent of college students do.

Bronk and many others would like to figure out how to foster purpose in young people. The field is challenged, however, by difficulties in measuring this elusive quality. The “gold standard” is a 45-minute structured interview called the Revised Youth Purpose Interview. Obviously, that’s not terribly practical for doing large-scale studies involving many students.

Oddly enough, the interview alone — 45 minutes of penetrating questions about personal motivation, direction and desire to make a difference — can itself help foster some aspects of purpose, at least according to one 2011 study. Psychologist Matthew Bundick, now at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, conducted the interview with 38 college students and found that nine months later they had a greater sense of purpose than students in control group. That finding suggests that merely giving adolescents the opportunity to explore and discuss ideas about their own trajectory through life can be beneficial.

This is where programs like the QUESTion Project come in. They provide that opportunity. Bronk, meanwhile, has created online tools for teens to explore their purpose.

There’s no question that the study of purpose remains rather fuzzy.

“It’s an emerging field,” says psychologist Heather Malin, director of research at Stanford’s Center on Adolescence. Both Malin and Bronk are developing new survey tools for measuring purpose – tools that are needed for bigger, more rigorous studies. Malin is also writing a book on the subject that takes a close look at six purpose-oriented programs already in high schools around the country (including the ones mentioned above).

There’s some consensus, she says, about what is needed: “It starts with giving kids the space and time to reflect on their values, and from there, thinking about their future direction, the idea of purpose and then having opportunities to act on it.” However, Malin notes, “these programs are struggling to come up with research and measures to show that they work.”

And yet, despite the lack of outcome data, the programs seem to be striking a chord. “One of the things that I’ve been seeing in some schools,” Malin says, “is they are saying enough is enough. We need to prioritize our students knowing what their value is in the world. I’ve been hearing the word ‘humanity’ over and over again. People have hit the limit with the rigidity and rigor.”

That has a lot to do with why Gerard Senehi, a former middle school teacher, created the QUESTion Project. He, too, talks about giving students “outlets for their humanity,” not only in response to the rigid curriculum in so many American schools, but in response to social norms that are in flux.

“In the past we had more of a script for who to be and how to be. The lack of script is a very good thing but it also makes it very hard if students don’t have support,” Senehi says. “This is part of the depression problem [among teens]. If you don’t have a script or you don’t have a place to define it for yourself, you are like a ship without an anchor.”

Jamila Blades, who has taught the class at Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics for three years, says she has seen students emerge with more confidence and courage to try new things, more respect for one another and perhaps even a less rote and lockstep view of their path through life. It’s one class where freshmen and seniors listen intently to one another and where, unlike other courses, there are no wrong answers.


This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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