Part of finding your purpose is connecting and contributing to something larger than yourself.
Teens can seem self-centered sometimes, can’t they?
Of course they can; they’re still supposed to be developing the capacity to see beyond themselves. They can also seem to lack a strong sense of purpose—and that’s not surprising either, because the ability to think about other people is developmentally linked with a sense of purpose.
“Purpose is a part of one’s personal search for meaning, but it also has an external component, the desire to make a difference in the world, to contribute to matters larger than the self,” write psychologists William Damon, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Bronk. Some researchers call this external component the beyond-the-self dimension of purpose:
Why am I here? What role can I play in the lives of those around me?
A new study of adolescents and emerging adults confirms that many young adults simply do not exhibit a beyond-the-self dimension of purpose. In fact, a beyond-the-self intention is even “atypical” of adolescents, according to researchers.
That being the case, how can we as parents and educators help them to find that intention?
Here are five research-based ways to inspire teens to connect with something larger than themselves.
1. Support teens’ beyond-the-self interests
Get to know the passions of the teens in your life. Do they love caring for little children or animals? Do they talk a lot about sustainability? Is there a political cause that they want to support?
“Purposeful youth described getting encouragement for their interests rather than hearing the more general encouragement to get good grades and go to college,” says Stanford psychologist Heather Malin, director of research at Stanford’s Center on Adolescence. “Some reported getting material and social support for their beyond-the-self interests.” For example, parents or caregivers might buy them books relevant to their interests, give them rides to volunteer work, or invite their child to volunteer at their workplace.
When adolescents can find clubs or structured school activities that connect with their broader interests, they are likely to become more personally motivated and engaged in those activities. If we encourage teens in pursuing their beyond-the-self interests, they are also more likely to have a stronger sense of purpose in the world.
2. Discuss values and character strengths
Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to foster a beyond-the-self intention in teens is through reflection on their values and opportunities to act on those values.
“Purposeful teens talk about big, abstract values (equality, diversity, justice, community, etc.) more so than non-purposeful teens,” says Malin. It’s crucial for them to have “opportunities to write about or discuss the things that matter most, especially in terms of the values they want to live by.”
One way to get youth to think about their own values is through the VIA (“Values in Action”) Survey. This helps students to identify potential character strengths—such as kindness, teamwork, fairness, and leadership—and envision ways to act on those strengths.
You might also share this Use Your Strengths practice with teens to help them focus on one personal strength each day for a week. For example, if kindness is a potential character strength, they might engage in a random act of kindness each day. Or if they choose to focus on teamwork as a strength, they might look for different ways to encourage teamwork at home or at school.
3. Facilitate activities that enhance empathy and perspective-taking
Another practical way to nurture beyond-the-self thinking is through learning experiences that focus on empathy. Researchers have linked empathic concern to prosocial behavior, while it may also play a role in decreasing different types of aggression.
Michele Borba, author of the book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, outlines multiple strategies for fostering empathy in kids as well as ways to teach perspective taking. She suggests keeping a journal in tandem with reading a novel, where students record immediate responses as if they were the book’s central character, literally stepping into someone’s shoes and imagining the perspective of the person who might wear them. Borba also proposes honoring “Hero Days”—a time when students dress up as an admired historical figure while speaking as if they are that famous person.
4. Expose teens to diverse perspectives
There is a powerful argument for diversity in schools and classrooms. A recent study of several thousand middle schoolers suggests that students feel safer, less bullied, and less lonely in more racially balanced classrooms.
But there may be other important benefits. If children and teens are exposed to a range of emotional styles and different ways of thinking and being, they may be more likely to engage in prosocial (kind and helpful) behavior.
For example, we know that many ethnic groups (e.g., Mexican American, African American) demonstrate a more communal and collectivist way of thinking that counters the individualism that prevails in much of North America. There is also evidence that teens who identify more with religion may be more prosocial. Further, a new U.S. study suggests that people from a higher social class experience greater self-oriented feelings (e.g., contentment and pride), while those identifying as lower social class experience more other-oriented feelings like compassion and love.
Because teens, in particular, have an increased cognitive capacity for perspective-taking, this is an important time to expose them to many different ways of thinking and being. Teachers might consider inviting a range of guest speakers to the classroom, regularly planning for cooperative learning activities with mixed groups of students, and leading interactive, inquiry-based learning experiences that feature service learning activities in the neighborhood.
5. Model empathy and prosocial behavior as an adult
Finally, when parents and caregivers model empathy and find ways to contribute to their own communities, they encourage their kids to do the same. Thanks to a motivated network of moms at school, for example, my daughter has been able to make blankets for local refugees, participate in food drives, and regularly volunteer at an organization that provides diapers and baby supplies for families who need them.
In this divisive political climate, however, some of us may be struggling to engage in our communities. We may feel exhausted or discouraged; we may even feel like hiding. It can feel daunting to reach out in a world that feels topsy-turvy. If this is the case, it’s so important to nurture our innate capacity for care and attunement.
Greater Good in Action features several simple practices that you can try yourself or share with the kids in your life, including Shared Identity, Active Listening, and Putting a Human Face on Suffering. If I feel caught up in a self-focused whirlwind of thoughts and feelings, loving-kindness meditation reminds me of my connection to the world—and my ability to reach out to others.
During a time when we are bombarded with images of greed and self-interest, it may be particularly important to think beyond ourselves. Ultimately, good intentions can expand to broader questions of purpose and role where we can all ask ourselves not only “Who am I?” but “Who am I in this world?” and “What can I contribute?”
Amy L. Eva, Ph.D., is the education content specialist at the Greater Good Science Center. She writes for the center’s online magazine, facilitates the Summer Institute for Educators, and consults on the development of GGSC education resources. With over 23 years in classrooms, she is a teacher at heart. She is fascinated by neuroscience, the psychology of learning, and adolescent development and has spent the last 12 years as a teacher educator.