Yes We Can! Yes We Can! But…What Are We Doing?

The surprising lifespan trajectory of purpose in life.

Posted Apr 07, 2014

Recently, I presented a guest lecture on purpose in life to a senior-level seminar in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University. Before beginning the lecture, I asked the class, “How many of you feel like you have a well-established purpose in life?” Zero hands went up. The response was unsurprising, as the professor of the class had previously mentioned to me that many of his students had come to his office hours, literally in tears, claiming to be at an utter loss over their upcoming graduation and future plans.

College students are positioned within a developmental period termed emerging adulthood (ages 18-25), which is marked by identity exploration, instability, and revisions of life goals, directions, and priorities. Naturally, most of us view this period of life as a hectic and haphazard time. Perhaps life’s pinnacle of anxiety, even Erik Erikson refers to this age span as a “crisis.” Just the other day, on a return flight to Logan International, I sat next to a student in her senior year at Wellesley College. We spoke at length regarding her trepidation over uncertain plans for the upcoming years. Recently awarded a travel scholarship, she was slated to venture across East Asia during the summer after graduation. Yet, despite her excitement over this, she was left discernibly distraught, wondering if she would really find whatever it was she was looking for. She seemed to fumble over her words as she tried to express the sense of uncertainty she was experiencing.

Just as a compass offers direction to a navigator, most emerging adults are seeking to identify their own self-sustaining source of direction, grasping at any and all straws that might offer them a path to follow. Amidst a crisis of endless exploration, it might seem intuitive that an absence of purpose could exist within this age group. Yet, surprisingly, the research says otherwise.


Graph of purpose lifespan trajectory

Defined as 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 (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003),” purpose in life has historically been considered to be a product of adulthood. A construct thought of as mysterious and sacred, rather than something concrete and bountiful, many have theorized that purpose was consigned only to those well-versed in life’s travels. However, a growing body of research (more than 70 studies) regarding purpose across the lifespan has evidenced a remarkably consistent pattern: the sense of purpose in life actually tends to peak during emerging adulthood and then begins to decline throughout middle adulthood and drops sharply through late adulthood.

As I returned home from my lecture at Cornell, I was intrigued by the seemingly conflicting accounts of (1) empirical data demonstrating high levels of purpose among these soon-to-graduate-students and (2) an apparent ubiquitous sense of uncertainty and stress among them.

Underscoring this phenomenon is perhaps a mere matter of conceptual confusion. While these students may not have yet identified a specific sense of purpose, they are still likely to possess broad, far-reaching, and generative goals. Most college students have an urge to contribute to the world around them and to give back to their community. Although they might not yet know precisely how to channel their aims and ambitions, they still possess a free-floating sense of future direction fundamentally different from any other age group. Older adults, for example, may feel a diminished sense of purposeful pursuit due to changing social roles and the perception that certain purposeful aims no longer seem realistically attainable. College students, on the other hand, are primed and ready to “change the world.” Ironically, it is perhaps this sense of heightened purposeful ambition in life, coupled with an absence of a clear direction that can cause such mental turbulence among some emerging adults.

The notion that emerging adults might possess high ambition without a clear and direct outlet is not new, and Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan “Yes we can!” taps into this experience. Largely targeted at voters aged 18-25, the slogan elicits a sense of ambition for change, but does not disclose the precise goal set out to be accomplished. Yes we can…what? Perhaps emblematic of the emerging adult population, the exact goal of the slogan remains purposely ambiguous, but the sense of desire in producing beneficial societal change is no doubt present.

References:Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence.Applied Developmental Sciences, 7, 119–128.

Corey L.M. Keyes (2011): Authentic purpose: the spiritual infrastructure of life,Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, 8:4, 281-297

About the Author

Maclen Stanley

Maclen Stanley is a graduate student in Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University.

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