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Helping teens find their purpose

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Students at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, a public high school in New York City, have an elective class that mixes students from all high-school grades and encourages them to talk about issues like the purpose and meaning of life.

It’s 12:15 p.m. on a Tuesday in December and 30 students gather for an unusual class at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, a public high school located in one of the country’s poorest Congressional districts. Two seniors, who have been trained to lead the class, are presiding over today’s session on the theme of interpersonal connection. They project a slide on a topic of near-universal interest to teenagers – social media. It asks, “How connected are we?” and then presents three provocative quotes for students to contemplate:

  • “We live in a society where looking cool in pictures has become more important than being a genuine person.”
  • “We are all now connected by the Internet like neurons in a giant brain.”
  • “Social media and technology are not agents of change. They are just tools. We the connected people are the agents of change.”

A lively discussion soon erupts over the pluses and minuses of social media. The students touch on privacy, cyberbullying, false and true identity, and the quality of friendships sustained and snuffed on Instagram and SnapChat. They circle around the issue of trust and the risk of being shamed for secrets they’ve shared. Tiny freshmen hold their own with burly seniors, all of them tidily turned out in the school uniform of gray and navy with striped ties for both girls and boys. Welcome to the QUESTion Project, a semester-long elective designed to give adolescents a space in which to wrestle with big questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most in their journey through life.

The three-year-old program, now offered in six public schools (five in New York City and one in Los Angeles) is part of a movement within a movement. In the past decade or so, a growing number of schools have adopted curricula on social and emotional learning, including an emphasis on growth mindsets (as defined by psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford) and developing a stick-to-it quality called grit (as explored by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania). The QUESTion Project  and like-minded programs such as the Future Project and Project Wayfinder focus on something a little more abstract and, arguably, profound: finding a sense of purpose.

Most young people and even most adults don’t have a purpose in their life.
Kendall Cotton Bronk, associate professor of psychology, Claremont Graduate University

Research and scholarship on “purpose” has gained momentum in recent years, converging from developmental psychology, moral philosophy, positive psychology and other directions. Its application to the world of adolescent education owes much to the work of Stanford psychologist William Damon, who, together with colleagues Jenni Menon and Kendall Cotton Bronk, developed this definition of purpose back in 2003: “A stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”

While definitions vary a bit from study to study, researchers have linked a sense of purpose to lower levels of adolescent depression, less binge drinking and drug abuse, healthier habits such as exercising, and a greater commitment to schoolwork. Adults with a sense of purpose report greater satisfaction with life.

Unfortunately, research also suggests that purpose is rare. “Most young people and even most adults don’t have a purpose in their life,” says Bronk, now an associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California.  A 2009 study involving 237 young people found that only 17 percent of high school freshman have a sense of purpose, and just 23 percent of seniors do, though more than 40 percent of college students do.

Bronk and many others would like to figure out how to foster purpose in young people. The field is challenged, however, by difficulties in measuring this elusive quality. The “gold standard” is a 45-minute structured interview called the Revised Youth Purpose Interview. Obviously, that’s not terribly practical for doing large-scale studies involving many students.

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