How to talk to Teens About Purpose

A Q&A with Kendall Bronk about instilling purpose in teens—and the emerging research showing why it’s so important

Many psychologists are worried that kids today are falling through the cracks at their schools. Unmotivated to learn or bored with their classes or both, many are simply going through the motions or dropping out of school altogether. Some suffer from debilitating depression and anxiety, or act out their frustrations in unhealthy ways—like using drugs and alcohol, or turning to criminal behavior.

But there may be a way to help address this problem: encouraging kids to search for a purpose in life. According to Kendall Bronk, a researcher at Claremont Graduate University who studies how purpose impacts wellbeing throughout the lifespan, young people are hungry for purpose—and without it, they tend to be uninterested in school and more prone to psychological issues down the road. Contrarily, those with purpose look forward to greater wellbeing.

Bronk defines purpose as having a goal in life that you care deeply about and that contributes to the world beyond yourself in some productive sense. In some cases, she has found that all it takes to get young people started down a path of purpose is to engage them in deep, probing conversations, which prompt them to reflect on their interests and values.

Jill Suttie, from Berkeley’s Greater Good spoke to Bronk recently about her work in this area and how it might apply to teens and other young people.

Jill Suttie: When are teens ready to pursue a purpose in their lives?

Kendall Bronk: When we think about adolescence, there seems to be a developmental progression around the growth of purpose. So, for middle schoolers, it’s not surprising that they are unlikely to have identified a purpose in life. More likely their search is going to happen down the road. During the adolescent high school years, maybe about one in five has found a purpose in life, meaning that they really do know where they’re headed and what they want to accomplish. By the time you get into the college years, it’s more like one in three, and even more are searching for a purpose.

JS: What does the research show about how the search for purpose or having a purpose in life connects to well-being or depression?

KB: Well, we did one study where we looked at the search for purpose and having identified a purpose in life and what that experience was like over different ages in the lifespan. What we found was people in high school, college, and midlife who’d identified a purpose in life—they felt they had a direction and they were working toward achieving it—their age didn’t matter; they reported having very high levels of wellbeing.

The search for purpose was a little more complicated. Among adolescents and emerging adults—meaning 18-25 year olds—we found that the search for purpose was associated with wellbeing; but by midlife, it no longer was.

If you think about it, this makes sense. We expect young people to be figuring out what they want to accomplish in life, so we give them space, time, and resources to consider the things that matter to them. But if they’re still working on that issue in midlife, that’s a problem.

Depressive young people tend to have low motivation and to feel hopeless. For people who are clinically depressed, everything is colored by negative feelings, and they often feel very stuck in the present. They can’t even focus on the future. And those are things that are at odds with finding a purpose in life. It can be more challenging to help these young people.

But fortunately, purpose is pretty malleable. It’s pretty easy to help young people think about purpose, and identify and even start working toward that purpose. Ideally you’d want to help young people think about purpose in life before they become depressed—you know, the best defense is a good offense. If that’s not possible, there are interventions that can help young people who are depressed to find a purpose in life, too.

JS: How do we know that having purpose is not just correlated with wellbeing rather than causing it?

KB: We’ve seen lots of studies over the last 15 years, since research on purpose really got underway. The biggest finding that has emerged is that purpose and depression are very inversely related, and purpose and wellbeing are very much positively correlated. Now that’s correlated and not causal; but there are all kinds of studies where researchers have induced a state of purposefulness, and that has changed people’s ratings of depression and wellbeing. So that’s moving in the direction of causality.

JS: Can you tell me what a study like that would look like? How do you instill a sense of purpose in a study?

KB: In these kinds of studies, they will often have young people read about an individual who’s lived an inspiring life of purpose or read inspiring quotes about purpose, and then ask them what this makes them think about or how this resonates with their own life. After an induction like that—when they’re encouraged to think about purpose or introduced to the idea of purpose—they will rate themselves as more purposeful and also rate their wellbeing as higher.

The problem with these studies is that the effect is temporary. If you can induce a sense of purpose that quickly, you can also lose it. So I don’t think that’s the answer—to quickly try to instill a sense of purpose and then leave.

JS: What are some longer-term ways of fostering purpose for an adolescent who doesn’t seem to be moving in that direction?

KB: This is exactly what we’re working on in our lab. We conducted a study where we were doing interviews with young people about their values and interests, and it seemed that just this 45-minute discussion was serving as an intervention, at least anecdotally. So we started surveying people before and after these interviews and we found that, yes, just having kids talk about the things that matter in their lives significantly increased their reporting of purpose.

It’s important that young people think about what they enjoy doing, what they really care about. Peter Benson called these “sparks,” and just about all young people can identify their sparks. The next thing you have to help them identify is what they value—what bothers or upsets them about the world today, what they really like, what they could see improving upon—and then bringing that together by asking them, “How can you use your personal skills or strengths for addressing these problems?”

You have to start small. If you, as a young person, really care about ending homelessness, that’s a big task. So what are the ways you can start using your special skills and talents to make a difference in this area?

Having young people focus on the things for which they’re grateful can also be a springboard for figuring out how they want to give back. As young people focus on their blessings, and maybe even reach out to the people who have taken an interest in them and helped them along the way, they tend to start thinking about ways in which they can give back and help others.

It’s important to share your own purpose in life, too. Moral exemplars are great, but sometimes you try to give them the story of Gandhi or Mother Teresa, and they just go “blech.” It’s totally overwhelming. But when you hear from a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a neighbor, or a friend, “Here is what gives my life purpose or meaning,” that can seem much more amenable, proximal, and doable.

At the same time, it’s not enough. You really have to listen to young people. One of the reasons these interviews were so good at getting them to start talking about purpose and meaning is that we didn’t just ask questions, we followed up with probes, giving them a chance to really talk and reflect. It’s surprisingly rare for young people to be asked what they think of these things, especially compared to how much time they spend thinking about proximal goals, like getting an A on their test tomorrow.

One last thing: connecting young people to opportunities to act on their personally meaningful goals is critical. Young people sometimes identify big lofty goals, and if you can help them think of ways they can immediately get involved, it’s really impactful. Even if it’s about as issue like homelessness that seems huge, you can tell them about an organization that does this or that and it will connect them to a community of like-minded people and mentors who can help them find additional ways to get involved in what they care about.

JS: Do you feel that there is an ideal age or phase of adolescence when it’s best to talk with kids about purpose?

KB: I think the ideal time to broach this topic is around transitions, especially the transition out of high school or college. This is when they are naturally thinking about these things. What am I going to do with my life?

I’ve been happily surprised when we do these interviews with young people. We hear the most amazing things from them, and often they will contact us afterwards and ask, “Can you send me the tape from that interview? I love the stuff I was talking about, and I realized that I hadn’t put it into words before.” Many young people are hungry for these conversations, because they’re searching. So having someone encourage and support that search feels good, feels right.

We want young people to start searching, but we need to be careful of closure. We don’t want them to decide too early what they want to accomplish without having considered other potential ideas. It’s not our goal to help someone to figure out their purpose in life by 11.

JS: To what degree do we really need research in this area? Wouldn’t we want to foster a sense of purpose in the lives of our teens without research telling us so?

KB: I’ve spoken with hundreds of high school principals, and every one of them says this is really important. Yet so many say they don’t have time to think about this in school. If the research says that knowing what you want to accomplish in life makes you more motivated in school and helps teachers be more effective in the classroom, then that can make a case for taking the time for it.

Yes, we don’t need research to know it’s good to have purpose. I think common sense can serve as a guide. But if we can come up with some really empirically-based strategies, that would help reach more young people—especially those who don’t have access to adults that are comfortable or able to have these conversations. Clearly it’s not happening today at the rate we’d like it to be.

JS: Do you ever worry that the research on purpose will lead people to discount systemic problems affecting kids, like poor schools or parenting, poverty or income inequality?

KB: There is so little attention paid to this, and most schools do absolutely nothing about purpose. So it’s hard to imagine the point at which schools are doing too much. But I do think it’s important to keep in mind that there’s no silver bullet in human development—we know this. It’s not like we’re going to find purpose and it’s all good. I suppose it’s possible that schools could move too much in this direction and we could lose sight of other important issues we need to focus on; but at this point, we are so far from that.

JS: Where do you see your own research going from here?

KB: When I give talks, I often get the question: What about the kids from economically depressed backgrounds?

If we think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, young people who don’t have a place to sleep and don’t know where their next meal is going to come from aren’t going to care about purpose. But, actually, I don’t think that’s true at all. We interviewed a group of young people in Colorado, many of whom had been homeless at some point in their lives, and we found really inspiring examples of purpose. In fact, I would even argue that sometimes hardship is associated with purpose, though obviously kids are not invulnerable to overwhelming challenges. But some level of challenge can help people start thinking about these things.

We need challenges to grow, and I think purpose is no exception. If young people had the support of an adult, they could use that challenge to help them to grow and think about purpose.

This interview was made by Jill Suttie and was published on Berkeley’s Greater Good.