Opportunity, Agency, and the First Steps to a Life of Purpose

Purpose in life might seem like a lofty goal for students, but it provides a host of benefits for adolescents, such as psychological wellbeing, physical health, hopefulness for the future, and satisfaction with life.[1] Young people with purpose are goal-directed and have aspirations that drive them forward in life and help organize their planning for the future. At the Stanford Center on Adolescence, we define purpose as a personally meaningful aspiration to do something that makes a positive contribution to the world beyond-the-self.[2]

In order for people to have purpose in life, they must act on their aspirations. Young people might feel driven to do something that will make a positive contribution in the world, but they don’t realize their purpose if they aren’t able to act on it. Taking action is essential to purpose development because the results of that action enable us to see that we are responsible for, and capable of, shaping the world. At least one study showed that people who act on their dreams have a greater sense of purpose than people who dream without taking action.[3] But, what makes it possible for some young people to act on problems, concerns, or interests with the belief that they can make a difference in the world? Acting on these dreams requires, among other things, a sense of agency.

Agency is the capacity to take action toward a desired end—to be the willful agent that controls the outcomes of one’s life. People with a strong sense of agency can identify a desired outcome, determine what they need to do to accomplish the outcome, and believe that they can be effective when they take action toward accomplishing their goals. The research on agency and purpose suggests that teens and young adults with a greater sense of agency in pursuing their goals are more likely to have purpose in life.[4]

Purpose, with its emphasis on contribution to the world beyond the self, relies specifically on a sense of social agency, or the ability to take action and be effective in a social context. A strong sense of social agency gives a young person the capacity to contribute to and shape family, community, society, or world through deliberate activity.

This strong sense of social agency can be hard for young people to come by. So many teens feel driven to act on an injustice they see in their community, the hardships faced by their family, or an inspiration to create something that will impact how others think or feel; yet, too often they don’t know how to take action. Many of the teens we interview say that they want to help others or do something that will have a positive impact in their community, but they are told they’re too young, or they don’t know where to start, or believe they don’t have the experience needed to take the first steps.

Those who do take action—and in doing so develop the sense of agency needed to pursue purpose in life—typically have one important social asset on their side: opportunity. Adults, including teachers, parents, and community leaders, can support social agency and purpose development by providing opportunity in three important ways: mentorship, role modeling, and authentic involvement.

  • Mentorship – Adults can recognize students’ interests, concerns, strengths, and meaningful goals and provide guidance. This need not be a formal mentor relationship. A simple invitation or suggestion to try out an activity based on a students’ strengths and interests, or a few words of personalized encouragement can provide the opportunity needed to support purpose development.
  • Role Modeling – Adults can provide opportunities to develop purpose indirectly by modeling engagement in beyond-the-self pursuits such as volunteering, participating in community projects, or pursuing artistic interests in public venues. By explicitly modeling their beyond-the-self and purpose-driven activities, adults show young people how it can be done.
  • Authentic Involvement – A more substantial way of providing young people with opportunities that can lead to purpose is by helping them get involved in authentic activities that reflect their interests and strengths. Young people want to get involved, solve problems, help people in their community, and contribute to making an impact. Many don’t lack the drive, but they do lack knowledge of how to get involved and access to opportunities to do so.

It’s a cyclical process. Acting on a purpose goal provides the feedback that provides young people a sense of social agency, and that sense of agency increases the potential for them to continue developing and strengthening their commitment to a purpose. A strong commitment to purpose works to develop a stronger sense of agency. Our role as adults may be as simple as providing them with opportunities to set the wheels in motion.

[1] László Brassai, Bettina F. Piko, and Michael F. Steger, “Meaning in Life: Is it a Protective Factor for Adolescents’ Psychological Health?” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 18, no. 1 (2011): 44-51; Anthony L. Burrow, Rachel Sumner, and Anthony D. Ong, “Perceived Change in Life Satisfaction and Daily Negative Affect: The Moderating Role of Purpose in Life,” Journal of Happiness Studies 15, no. 3 (2013): 579-92; Patrick L. Hill and Nicholas A. Turiano, “Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood,” Psychological Science 25, no. 7 (2014): 1482-486; Carol D. Ryff et al., “Purposeful Engagement, Healthy Aging, and the Brain,” Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports 3, no. 4 (2016): 318-27; Anthony L. Burrow, Amanda C. O’Dell, and Patrick L. Hill, “Profiles of a Developmental Asset: Youth Purpose as a Context for Hope and Well-Being,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 39, no. 11 (2009): 1265-273

[2] Damon, William, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Cotton Bronk. “The Development of Purpose During Adolescence.” Applied Developmental Science7, no. 3 (2003): 119-28. doi:10.1207/s1532480xads0703_2.

[3] Anna Vazeou-Nieuwenhuis, Edward Orehek, and Michael F. Scheier. “The Meaning of Action: Do Self-Regulatory Processes Contribute to a Purposeful Life?” Personality and Individual Differences 116 (2017): 115-22

[4] Anthony L. Burrow and Patrick L. Hill, “Purpose as a Form of Identity Capital for Positive Youth Adjustment,” Developmental Psychology 47, no. 4 (2011): 1196-206; Anthony L. Burrow, Amanda C. O’Dell, and Patrick L. Hill, “Profiles of a Developmental Asset: Youth Purpose as a Context for Hope and Well-Being,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 39, no. 11 (2009): 1265-273

By |2019-01-04T13:48:19-04:00December 14, 2018|

About the Author:

Heather Malin is the director of research at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, where she conducts research on diverse aspects of purpose development. She is the author of Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning. Please connect with me on twitter @heathermalin.

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