In addition to pursuing happiness, we also hope to help young people cultivate purpose—the commitment to something that not only is meaningful to them personally, but also helps them contribute to the world around them.
Youth who pursue a sense of purpose report higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and physical health. In an ideal world, purpose development—at the heart of adolescents’ search for identity—may be driven by intellectual curiosity, healthy risk-taking, and the desire for exploration.
Yet many students in this country face colossal roadblocks in pursuit of a larger goal or vision. Stress, poverty, and systemic racism can influence purpose development in youth of color within low-income, urban communities. A 2017 study of middle and high school youth of color explored the role that stress plays in their pursuit of purpose—and how we can support them in this crucial time of life.
In a series of interviews, student participants discussed purpose and personal goals as they related to stress and coping skills. Students also described the role of significant relationships in their lives with peers, parents, teachers, and other family members and mentors.
Analyzing the interviews, researchers found that the key sources of student stress were finances, school and work, family, peers, their neighborhood, immigration, and relocation—and they made an interesting observation about the role of stress.
Stress appeared to be both a barrier and a motivator to purpose development for youth of color in this study.
If students saw stress as a barrier, they described feeling consistently “overwhelmed” and aware of the “impossibility” of meeting their goals, which worked against their development of purpose. However, if students perceived their stress as a motivator, they tended to acknowledge pressure to meet adult mentors’ high expectations and express a desire to escape their current circumstances and stressors. As “Angela,” a 12th grade Hispanic/Latino student, said:
“My goal I have is to graduate high school because I’ll be the first to do that in my family. To go to college . . . It’s a lot of pressure [from my mom], you know. I’m going to do it. . . . I have a lot of goals for myself . . . so I’m organized and all that. . . . I want to go for psychology or social work . . . working in the system with the kids.”
William Damon, a leading scholar of youth purpose, has argued that youth may not always find striving for a purpose to be stressful—even when it requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice. “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness,” says Damon. In Angela’s case, her desire to give back to the kids in her neighborhood seems to propel her forward and provide a sense of meaning—regardless of the ongoing pressure she feels.
This study’s findings appear to support Damon’s conclusion and confirm other research that explores underrepresented students’ pathways to purpose and the benefits of having a positive stress mindset.
Yet why did some students in this study experience stress as a barrier rather than a motivator to purpose? When students under stress did not feel they were supported by others, they generally lacked purpose; however, the experience of social support seemed to mitigate stress levels and enhance purpose development. If you have people to lean on, stress doesn’t seem to be as daunting.
Three ways to support our students
Here are three research-based strategies for providing your children and students with the support they need as they embark on their purpose journeys.
Communicate high expectations. We know that when parents or teachers have high expectations of youth of color, they tend to achieve greater academic success. Adults’ high expectations can motivate purpose development, as well. One student named Lydia referred to her parents, saying: “They only have up to a high school diploma. That’s about it. And they want, for us, they want more. Like, they want us to be doctors, like lawyers, and stuff because they have high expectations for us.”
An authentic, strengths-based approach to teaching and learning isn’t really possible unless teacher-leaders are committed to addressing their biases. Genuine care for our students means holding high positive expectations for all of them—and believing in their potential for growth.
Be invested and accessible. When adults make themselves available to students and demonstrate commitment to their success, students can feel energized. Another participant in the stress-purpose study shared, “[My teachers have] been motivators to me because my teacher has helped me reach my goal of going to Boston Arts Academy . . . [If I had a problem] I could go to someone in my family, or any other teacher, because I feel like they’re all open, and they all make time for you.”
As developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner famously stated: “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”
Facilitate self-exploration. On a more practical level, Kendall Bronk, a researcher in youth purpose development, shares a number of simple activities that can increase students’ purpose. For example, students can read about someone who lived an inspiring life of purpose or discuss motivating quotes about purpose while relating those quotes to their personal lives. Even a brief, 45-minute discussion of purpose, values, and interests can increase the sense of purpose that students feel.
According to Bronk, “Purpose is pretty malleable. It’s pretty easy to help young people think about purpose, and identify and even start working toward that purpose.”
It’s also crucial to recognize and acknowledge some of the very real barriers and stressors that may stand in students’ paths. And perhaps most notably, it’s important to consider that some of those so-called barriers could be the very things that compel students to achieve their larger goals—especially when they have our support.