Several years ago, I was listening to an OnBeing interview with Quaker thinker and leader Parker Palmer and reporter and activist Courtney Martin. The topic of the conversation was “The Inner Life of Rebellion” and in the context of exploring sustainable rebellion, Palmer dipped into the topic of purpose and what he calls “faithfulness in action”. He said:
“By faithfulness, I mean, am I being faithful to my own gifts? Am I being faithful to the needs I see around me within my reach? And am I being faithful to those points at which my gifts might intersect those needs in some life-giving way?”
The wisdom in his words stunned me. I almost had to pull my car over to the side of the road so I could just let that all sink in for a moment. He hit so squarely on what a meaningful life is, what it is to live with a sense of purpose. I wished I had heard his words as a young person, that they could have guided my quest for purpose up to that point. “Where do my gifts intersect with the needs I see around me within my reach?” Bam.
What is purpose?
Purpose is an allusive yet remarkably powerful concept. What does it even mean? Stanford psychologist William Damon, who works in the field of purpose as it relates to adolescent education, developed the following definition with colleagues Jenni Menon and Kendall Cotton Bronk 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.”
Bronk, a leading researcher on youth development and founder and director of the Moral Development Lab, highlights four defining features of purpose: dedicated commitment, personal meaningfulness, goal-directedness, and a vision bigger than self.
Palmer, in turn, has spent a great deal of time considering purpose, how it forms, and why it is important. He shares his thoughts and experiences in the impactful read: Let Your Life Speak. “Is the life I am living the same as the life that wants to live in me?” Palmer asks. The book focuses, in large part, on allowing sense of purpose to grow organically rather than following the rules of what we think we should do/care about/be or trying to force a sense of purpose.
“Vocation does not come from willfulness,” writes Palmer. His process of discovering purpose is a bit like a conversation with life in which we listen as life speaks to us, telling us what it wants from us, trust our intuition and allow ourselves to be different. Our vision for life grows from this process, instead of being forced upon us, either by what others tell us we should do or by preconceived ideas we ourselves hold.
Purpose and meaning, identity and happiness
Through all of these understandings of purpose, we see that meaning is a close relative. The sense that life is meaningful is closely interwoven with a connection to something greater than our singular self. With that connection comes an appreciation for why our actions and decisions hold meaning beyond our individual lives.
Furthermore, the development of identity is also woven into the development of purpose. Who we understand ourselves to be is closely linked to what we believe we are meant to give, the impact we have, and our connection to the rest of the world. This link between identity and purpose is particularly interesting when we consider how the adolescent years are often filled with a search for identity. This connection is explored further below.
It’s important to note that happiness and purpose are not the same thing. While they are often synonymous, many associate happiness with personal wants and needs (although there are also certainly many people who find that they cannot sustain happiness in the absence of purpose). Purpose extends beyond the self, again with that critical component of connection to something greater and often involves service. And purpose can certainly involve struggle.
A sense of purpose has been demonstrated to contribute to mental, emotional and even physical health. Kendall Brock’s research highlights the relationship between purpose and both hope and life satisfaction. However, research has also found that purpose is rare and especially so in young people. A 2009 study involving 237 young people found that only 17 percent of high school freshman have a sense of purpose. The number was not much greater in seniors, at just 23 percent.
How does purpose relate to activism and climate involvement?
Activism and any type of involvement in the climate crisis – working to positively address the challenge with solutions and effective change – might seem like a given sense of purpose. What could be more purposeful than working to ensure that the planet can sustain the life of the many species that depend on this home while also working to build a social system grounded in respect and equality?
And yet, let’s again consider Kendall Bronk’s defining features of purpose. Yes, a vision bigger than self is key, and, for the most part, engaging in the climate crisis involves that expanded vision (unless the engagement is driven purely by selfish reasons). But purpose is also composed of dedicated commitment, personal meaningfulness and goal-directedness. These things are not a given simply through becoming concerned about climate change.
Here’s the thing. More and more people are developing this concern about the climate crisis. But as concern spreads, so does confusion. People want to make a difference, but they don’t know how. They feel a bit lost – or very lost – in the enormity of the issue at-hand.
This feeling is something akin to how lost we can feel when we ask ourselves about the purpose of our lives. In addition to awareness of and connection to something greater than ourselves, we are also looking for the ways in which our unique interests and strengths (or what we have to give, in other words) intersect with that something greater. Therein lies our purpose.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the good news is that effective solutions require the diverse strengths of many, not the specialization of a few. The challenge extends beyond carbon emissions and the solutions extend beyond renewable energy sources. We need the best and brightest of our teachers, artists, writers, mathematicians, farmers, lawyers and economists – and many, many more.
We can facilitate each other in the process of examining the needs involved in successfully addressing climate change and asking, as Palmer invites us, if we are “being faithful to those points at which my gifts might intersect those needs in some life-giving way?” That intersection will look different for each of us – and that is exactly as it should be.
How can we support young people in developing a sense of purpose?
If a sense of purpose is so beneficial and serves as a compass, not only in life generally, but also when it comes to climate change, how can we support young people in connecting to purpose in their lives?
The good news is, young people are predisposed to discover purpose. Driven by curiosity and a desire to discover, young people are hungry for new experiences. And as Parker Palmer so beautifully illustrates in Let Your Life Speak, the process of connecting to purpose is grounded in that particular type of conversation with life itself, one in which we are open, curious and allow our experiences to shape us. Young people are perfectly equipped for this process, particularly if we support their curiosity and experience-seeking.
Do particular types of experiences better foster purpose than others? If we look back to the working definitions of purpose, it is clear that experiences that connect one to a sense of something greater than oneself are particularly powerful.
Patrick Cook-Deegan, founder and director of Project Wayfinder and a 2015-2016 education innovation fellow at Stanford d.school, spent a decade interviewing peers, social change leaders, and others who demonstrated a strong connection to purpose. He asked about transformative experiences and several common themes arose from the anecdotal evidence collected:
- Travel abroad
- Extended time in the natural world
- Involvement in a meaningful social change project
- Contemplative practice
Cook-Deegan also noted how important it was to those interviewed to have time away from technology, time spent connecting personally with others and the world around them.
Because the development of purpose is so interwoven with the development of identity, a search for purpose is highly relevant during adolescence. Unfortunately, the structure and focus of teen life today presents challenges when it comes to seeking and exploration. Most hours are spent in high school, and most high schools – at this point – are not dedicated to questions of purpose and meaning. As Claudia Wallis put it in a piece written in 2018 for the Hechinger Report (a national nonprofit newsroom reporting solely on education): “teens are often either disillusioned from the banality of school or over achieving students are on the treadmill and cannot step off for fear of falling behind….We have managed to create high school experiences that give students little time for self-reflection, meaning making, and diving deeply into what makes us come alive.”
When I was working with teens in a local theater project, I realized just how eager adolescents are to ask the big questions, questions like: “Why am I here right now? What is the meaning of my life? Who am I? What do I have to give?”
Parents and teachers cannot provide meaning and purpose for young people, but we can support their curiosity, their eagerness to explore and their desire to ask these big questions. We can offer experiences. And we can support the important and challenging work of integrating discoveries about purpose and passion into daily life. (Have you ever returned home from something like a yoga retreat? Or a backpacking trip? If so, you know what I’m talking about.)
We can engage in conversations about meaning and purpose. We can provide a supportive, encouraging space for the young people we love to explore and discuss their ideas and questions. We can encourage them to listen to themselves and their interactions with the world, to trust their intuition and let go of assumptions. We can give them space to take their time in discovering answers. And, importantly, we can model all of this work in how we approach our own lives.
And schools can support and implement programs that dive into the heart of those big questions, particularly for high school students. Fortunately, some great programs already exist, available to public and private schools alike. I explore school programs aimed at purpose and meaning in this post.
A public, communal quest
Questions about purpose and meaning are often relegating to moments of private, self-reflection. The pondering involved can be messy and imperfect. The initial discoveries are unpolished.
However, Parker Palmer urges us to explore these questions in the public, collective sphere. His Center for Courage and Renewal offers programs that embolden all of us to approach the many relationships of our lives with the courage needed to show up vulnerably and fully – and this absolutely includes asking those big life questions together. Palmer’s trainings focus on creating safe, supportive spaces in which people of diverse backgrounds can practice deeper listening, build trustworthy relationships and explore together.
Consider the impact that could occur if we spent more time together considering questions of meaning and purpose and supporting each other in leading purposeful lives. What would society look like if we heard each other into the fullness of who we could be in the world?