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How Healthy Teens Develop a Sense of Purpose and Lead Purposeful Lives

It’s a rare parent these days who doesn’t worry about their teen’s endless hours on screens. Years ago, it was TV that glued us to the couch, while our parents yelled at us to do something with ourselves. Something. Anything.

So perhaps it’s won’t be surprising to parents that only about 20 percent of young people reported leading fully purposeful lives, according to a study led by Professor William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. Purposeful life was defined as having a vision and a commitment to something they believe in, and doing something about it.

Purposeful Lives

That’s not many teens, but Damon isn’t sounding alarm bells. Most of the youth in his study actually had a dream, or some great ideas—the teens just hadn’t had the chance to put those visions into action.

Teens need time and space to identify and reflect on what’s important to them. It’s natural that it takes a while to sort out what matters, and to take steps toward making an impact, Damon assures parents.

The important thing is to be moving forward—trying new things and learning from experience, says Damon. And that’s true wherever purpose is ultimately found: in a political or spiritual calling; a commitment to family, community, or career; or a passion such as art or sport.

Purpose Is Healthy

Kendall Cotton Bronk, a professor of developmental psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California, studies how young people discover purpose. Bronk finds that individuals with purpose report being physically healthier than non-purposeful peers.

Purposeful individuals “report lower levels of stress, less chronic pain, and better sleep,” says Bronk.

“Not only are their lives longer, but also more fulfilling. Individuals with purpose are less depressed, anxious, and lonely, and more hopeful, more satisfied, and happier than individuals without purpose.”

Sharing Stories

A supportive adult can help a teen identify what matters most. Varda Yoran is a Brooklyn-based sculptor who, as a Russian-Jewish émigré, lived through the Japanese occupation in China in the 1930s and World War II. She later married a Holocaust survivor. When her teenage grandson, Neo Wastin, asked her about the purpose of life, she spoke frankly about the people she had seen in the world—those who had made a strong positive impact, and those who had done great harm.

Finally, there are some people who just don’t do much. “There are people who go through life and out, and it didn’t make any difference whether they were there at all,” said Varda.

Neo knows he wants to be, as he puts it, “one of those people who make a good difference in the world.” For him, that has meant starting a fundraising drive to provide music to elders with Alzheimer’s.

Parents Can Foster Purpose

Bronk offers concrete ways parents can help teens who haven’t yet found their purpose:

Model purpose. To spark ideas, talk with your teen about what gives your life purpose. Does raising children fill your life with meaning? Perhaps your career allows you to make a difference in the broader world?

Focus on your teen’s strengths. Purpose emerges when young people apply their strengths to make an impact. Point them towards activities and interests that suit them.

Emphasize gratitude. Reflecting on blessings and the people who have helped them naturally prompts young people to consider how they want to give back. Express gratitude as a family—maybe as a daily practice at the dinner table or in notes on a kitchen chalkboard.

Talk about the far horizon. Long-term thinking helps teens focus on what they want out of life. What do they think will be important to them in the future? Why?

It takes a village. Encourage teens to reach out to friends and family members—and encourage family and friends to reach out to your teen. Other supportive adults can share the good qualities they see in your teen, and nurture them towards vision and action.


Margaret Hetherman

Margaret Hetherman is a Brooklyn-based writer and mother with eyes open to climate math. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and holds an M.F.A. from New York University. Connect with her on Twitter @hetherman