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The Impact of Human Purpose on Resiliency

How human purpose shapes our individual lives and the world at large.

Key points

  • Our lab interviewed young people about what matters most to them.
  • This longitudinal study showed that the young people we interviewed showed significant increases in purpose months later.
  • We can all help shape young people’s views of their future and their sense of purpose in life.

What in life brings you joy, purpose, and meaning? In this interview, Kendall Bronk helps us explore human purpose, sharing how to cultivate purpose and use it for the benefit of others and the world.

Kendall Bronk, used with permission
Source: Kendall Bronk, used with permission

Kendall Cotton Bronk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology in the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the Claremont Graduate University (a member of the Claremont Colleges). She is a developmental scientist interested in studying and promoting positive youth development and the moral growth of young people. Most recently, she has investigated these topics through the lens of life purpose for young people. Her research has explored the relationship between purpose and healthy growth, the ways young people discover purpose, and the development of purpose among diverse groups of young people, including young people from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define human purpose?

Kendall Bronk: A purpose in life is a long-term, forward-looking intention to accomplish aims that are both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self. There are at least three parts of this definition that are particularly important. First, a purpose is a goal of sorts, but it’s not a short-term objective. Instead, it’s a far-horizon or long-term intention that motivates more short-term activities and guides decision-making. Second, a purpose in life is personally meaningful. In fact, it matters so much to individuals that they are willing to dedicate their time, energy, and other personal resources to making progress toward it, and third, a purpose is significant not only to the self but also to the world beyond the self. Taking these parts of the definition together, a purpose in life refers to the way individuals use their personal skills and talents to make a meaningful contribution to the broader world. Our research finds that people today find purpose in serving their communities, caring for their families, supporting social and political change, leading lives in accordance with their religious beliefs, and pursuing careers that enable them to make meaningful contributions.

JA: What are some ways human purpose can help us live more resiliently?

KB: A growing body of research suggests that, compared to others, individuals with a purpose in life tend to be more resilient. Being inspired by a personally meaningful goal that is larger than the self serves to keep individuals committed to long-term aims, despite challenges and setbacks.

Members of my research lab and I conducted a study of young people living in Greece in the midst of the Great Recession. We conducted the study in 2016 when the country was deep in the throes of the Great Recession (it hit Greece later than the US) and also in the midst of a political crisis. Refugees from the Middle East were flooding into the country, and much of the rest of Europe had shut its borders. Refugees were stuck in Greece, and the already cash-strapped country had to figure out what to do with them. On top of this, the country was contemplating leaving the European Union. A potential Grexit threatened to seriously narrow job opportunities for Greeks, who regularly leave their country in search of work in neighboring European countries.

Against this backdrop, we conducted a mixed-methods study, where we surveyed and interviewed seniors in college. We chose to include young people who were about to enter the workforce because we felt they would be the most influenced by the economic and political challenges. What we learned was clear: the young Greeks with purpose were significantly more resilient than the young Greeks without. They recognized that the future was going to be difficult, but with an aim larger than themselves to drive them, they were able to look past those challenges and envision a positive future.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate purpose?

KB: Early in our study of purpose, we conducted a longitudinal, mixed-methods study with a couple of aims. First, we administered surveys, designed to assess the prevalence of purpose among young people today. Second, we randomly selected a group of the young people we surveyed, and we had them participate in interviews. We hoped to learn more about the things that inspired purpose among young people. Accordingly, interviews asked young people what they most hoped to accomplish in their lives and why. We were surprised by the reactions we got: the adolescents loved the interviews. They asked if we could share the transcriptions and audio recordings with them. This reaction made us wonder if our interview hadn’t served as a kind of unintentional intervention. As luck would have it, we planned to survey the young people again, several months later, so a colleague, Matthew Joseph, decided to compare interviewees with non-interviewees to see if their purpose scores improved from the first to the second survey. Lo and behold, they did. Young people who participated in a one-time, roughly 45-minute interview about the things that mattered most to them showed significant increases in purpose months later.

Based on this interview, members of my lab and I have created a range of online activities and toolkits that help young people discover their purpose in life.

JA: Do you have any advice for how we might use our purpose to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

KB: Helping to connect a loved one to their purpose in life can go a long way to helping them navigate difficult life situations. To help someone who is struggling discover their purpose, try talking to them about what they hope to accomplish in their life, and see if you can help them gain greater clarity around what that might entail. Share your own purpose in life with them. Sometimes people need help imagining what a purpose could look like and finding the right language to express it. Modeling purpose can help. Something else to try is to encourage the person to focus on the blessings in their life and on the people who have blessed them. This can be done by encouraging the person to write down three good things that happen to them each day for a couple of weeks or by writing and delivering a gratitude letter, in which they thank someone who has helped them or blessed them in some on-going way. These activities, and others, can help them develop a grateful mindset, and this tends to naturally incline people to start to think about how they want to give back. Giving back can take the form of a purpose in life.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share?

KB: We have several projects underway in our Adolescent Moral Development Lab. The first is a study of purpose among adolescent and young adult cancer survivors. This study explores the way a cancer diagnosis shapes young people’s views of the future and their sense of purpose in life. A second study looks at family purpose. What is a family purpose, what might it look like for families to develop a shared vision for the future, and what difference might it make for families to share a collective sense of purpose? We are exploring each of these questions and others. Third, we have a study underway in Liberia. This one is designed to gain a deeper understanding of what positive youth development more generally and purpose more specifically looks like in this culture. We know little about what positive youth development entails in majority world countries, such as Liberia. Finally, we are conducting a cross-cultural study looking at the way young people develop career-oriented purposes in the West (Los Angeles) and East (Taiwan). Through this study we’re eager to learn more about the way culture shapes purpose development.

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