In Search of Purpose

New Opportunities to Help Our Teens Find Meaning

Though the answer to the question, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” continues to change – and precisely because the answer changes – we ask it throughout childhood. My four-year-old declared he wanted to be Darth Vader. My seven-year-old knew he wanted to be a Dad someday. And my now ten-year-old is an aspiring Lego Master Builder. Children dream of what they will do and more importantly, who they will become as they grow. Discovering the “why” of one’s life, the meaning behind your own unique way of being and contributing is your sense of purpose. It’s the answer to the big question – “Why am I here?” – and it evolves over a lifetime. In fact, as adults, we may grapple with our own sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. And that grappling is critical. Children and adults who wrestle to find their own answers and attempt to live in alignment with their sense of purpose tend to be happier and enjoy greater mental well-being says research.

As the numbers of U.S. tweens and teens who struggle with anxiety and depression grow, conversations about their unique potentials for contributions to the world become vital. Because the only person to know and uncover your child’s purpose is your child, listening and opening the door to reflection is more important than pointing to any answers.

Young children can begin to make the connection between life choices and sense of purpose as you reflect on your own decisions as a parent. What is meaningful to you? Why do you engage in the work or other activities you engage in? And how does that engagement relate to the larger world? How have you discovered your own sense of meaning and ways to contribute?

Perhaps the way we get in our own way in finding our own sense of purpose is by fearing the “what if.” “What if I am no good at what I aspire to?” “What if I get rejected?” “What if my interests don’t point to a money-making or practical opportunity?” Children, as they grow and become more socially aware, hold these fears too whether they are willing to voice them or not. So how do we help them not allow fears to dictate their future? How do we help them find their own authenticity?

We best assist our children in finding their purpose by placing our trust in their ability to find their own answers. We can demonstrate that confidence by reaffirming their inner knowledge each time they question it. Susie, at age eleven, asserted, “I can’t begin piano now. Everyone already knows how to play. I don’t know anything.” Yet Susie showed she had a genuine interest as she hung around the piano and watched others play longingly. We all have those moments of looking up at the mountain of learning before us. But when we follow our interests, our pulls, our curiosities – and when parents support their children in doing so – we get closer to understanding who we are and why we are who we are.

Discovering our sense of purpose begins with those interests but is further refined when we ask, “How can my unique interests benefit the world?” Then we can begin to make connections to a larger purpose finding our own place in contributing to the greater good. And when we identify how we can help contribute to something bigger, we are motivated to do whatever is necessary to make a difference. There are certainly enough issues to tackle. Our world needs every single high school graduate to find their own best way to serve.

When our emerging adult sons and daughters come to us in frustration, we can guide them to search within. You might hear, “Everyone else knows what they are going to do with their lives. I have no clue!” Or perhaps you recall uttering similar words at one point yourself. What if your parent told you that you already possessed the answers? What if they encouraged you to get quiet, to ask questions about what you love, what you care about and how you could contribute, and really listen? Then you could gain insight into the realm of your very own potentials.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley recognizes the importance of helping young people discover their sense of purpose. They’ve created the Purpose Challenge – a set of resources including guiding questions to stir deeper thinking and a scholarship fund in order to support this effort and encourage more young people to explore from within. If you are a parent of high school age children, this is well worth checking out! Here’s more on this wonderful opportunity:

About The Purpose Challenge:

An innovative and inspiring new online tool, The Purpose Challenge incorporates video content, reading materials, and brief written exercises – such as imagining your ideal life at age 40 – to help high school seniors reflect on and refine their sense of purpose. It draws on decades of research into the roots and benefits of purpose.

Teens can then inject their newly fleshed out sense of purpose in their college application essay and win up to $25,000 for college! The deadline is February 1, 2018. Learn more at

Why Purpose?

The partners in this effort including University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the John Templeton Foundation and the social impact company, Prosocial believe purpose is critically important. Research has shown that a strong sense of purpose – a commitment to something that is both personally rewarding and beneficial to others – is linked to improved health, well-being, and success. A stronger sense of purpose can make a significant difference in a young person’s life path, setting them on a course for a more successful, meaningful life.

Check out this fantastic brief video that shares more on understanding your purpose.


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