The Science of Happiness. Register Today
   
 

How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose

By Vicki Zakrzewski | June 11, 2013 | 0 comments

Research suggests that inducing awe in the classroom might inspire kids to find a sense of purpose in life

Imagine being Ryan Hreljac’s first grade teacher. After telling your class of six and seven year olds that children in Africa are dying because of lack of clean water, Ryan, one of your students, is so moved he has to do something. What starts as extra vacuuming at home to earn money for wells eventually turns into Ryan’s Well Foundation that, to-date, has brought safe water and sanitation services to over 789,900 people.

As his teacher, you helped Ryan start on the path to a life purpose, which, according to research, may be one of the greatest services you ever render to your students.

William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, states that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates amongst our youth. One sample statistic: the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.

To combat this meaninglessness, Damon argues that students need to find a purpose in life—something that is meaningful to themselves and that also serves the greater good. In a series of studies of over 1,200 youth ages 12 to 26, Damon found that those who were actively pursuing a clear purpose reaped tremendous benefits that were both immediate and that could also last a lifetime.

More immediate benefits included extra positive energy that not only kept students motivated, but also helped them acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue their purpose, making them very strong learners. Youth with a strong sense of purpose also benefited from positive emotions such as gratitude, self-confidence, optimism, and a deep sense of fulfillment—all of which scientists have found help prevent depression and anxiety.

Students who carry this sense of purpose into adulthood may also benefit in the long run. Research shows that adults who feel their lives have meaning and purpose are happier, more successful at work, and have stronger relationships.

So what does this mean for educators? In-depth interviews of 12 purpose-driven youth from Damon’s studies revealed that all of them came to their purpose through people outside their immediate families, including their teachers.

In his book, Damon suggests several ways teachers can help their students discover a sense of purpose, such as asking students about what’s most important to them and talking about your own sense of purpose as a teacher.

But new research suggests another way: awe.

While the research on awe is still fairly new, several studies conducted by the Greater Good Science Center’s Dacher Keltner have shown that the experience of awe has the potential to turn students’ lives in a new direction.

Here’s how awe works: When we experience an inspiring work of art or a grand vista in nature or learn a new mind-expanding theory, we often feel a sense of vastness that gives us a new perspective on the world and our place in it. These two steps make up the emotion awe.

Keltner has found that awe makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves—a crucial and necessary aspect of purpose. According to Damon, without this larger connection, students are less likely to maintain their inspiration, motivation, and resilience in the face of challenges.

Imagine how life-changing this emotion could be for students who are struggling to find meaning in their lives and schoolwork! An awe experience has the potential to open their minds to new ways of thinking, including what their place in the world might be.

For teachers who would like to use awe in the classroom to help students find purpose, here is one research-based suggestion that might spark even more creative suggestions from readers:

Give students an awe-inducing experience to introduce a new unit of study. When planning your next unit, think about how you might open the unit in a way that places the unit’s topic in the “grander scheme of things” and how students might relate to both the topic and this grander scheme.

For example, the video below was used in Keltner’s research lab to induce awe. Teachers could use it at the beginning of units on astronomy, geometry, perspective, or measurement:


This video was also used to induce awe in the lab and could be used for units on sustainability, nature photo/videography, geology, zoology, or eco-systems:


After showing the video, help students process what they just saw. Awe involves changing our mental models to incorporate the experience. Thus, to help students understand and process the experience at a deeper level, have them first write about what they felt or thought while watching the video. Then discuss with them how both the video content and the topic they’re about to study relates to them personally and to the world in general.

It’s important to note that your efforts to induce awe in students will fall on some deaf ears. Keltner found that not everyone is prone to awe—particularly those who are not comfortable changing their outlook on the world. But that shouldn’t keep teachers from trying to induce awe in students. UC Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff speculates, “There’s good reason to think that students who don’t experience awe could benefit from those who do. For example, through the contagious effects of positive emotion, increased solidarity and cooperation, social facilitation, and benefiting from others’ egalitarianism.” And even if none of the students experience awe, the follow-up discussion still has the potential to generate a rich discussion about purpose.

Helping students find a path to purpose is one of the noblest aspects of teaching. As Damon writes, “This is how all young people should feel about life when they are starting out. Idealism, high hopes, enthusiasm, and a sense of awe and wonder in exploring the world around them.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., is the education director of the Greater Good Science Center. This post originally appeared on Edutopia.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

The Science of Happiness

Course Is Now Live! Take It at Your Own Pace Through May 2015


The Science of Happiness

An unprecedented free online course exploring the roots of a happy, meaningful life. Co-taught by the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas. Up to 16 CE credit hours available.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

29 Gifts By Cami Walker Walker’s life is in a downward spiral until she takes unusual advice from a friend: to give away 29 gifts in 29 days.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement