Purpose

Commitment to making a meaningful contribution to the world

Strength of heart

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

—Helen Keller

Why does purpose matter?

Having a purpose is good for both you and the world. It drives you to make positive contributions in line with your own interests and strengths. And this pursuit gives your life direction and forward momentum; it motivates and guides your short-term goals and daily activities. With a strong sense of purpose, you flourish: you enjoy a more meaningful life, are healthier and more resilient to setbacks, live more energetically, and feel good about what you’ve accomplished.

Pulse Check

Think about yourself. How many of these things are true?

  • I look for ways to have positive effects on others’ lives.
  • I often reflect on my life goals and the kind of person I want to be.
  • When I plan out my day, I consider how my activities connect to what I want to accomplish with my life.
  • I often think about what I can offer the world, taking into account what the world needs as well as my personal strengths and interests.
  • I often think about what matters most to me and why it matters.

How do I encourage purpose in others?

Model it. Engage in activities that connect to your own purpose, such as meaningful work, volunteering, or creating art—and invite young people to participate with you. Talk about your goals and why they are important to you: “I volunteer at the library because I think everyone should have free access to books and information.”

Celebrate it. Praise and support actions that serve a larger purpose: “I love that you participated in the local cleanup day—picking up litter makes the town better for everyone.” Point out connections between activities and long-term goals: “It makes sense that you’ve joined the Girls Who Code club at school, since you’ve always been interested in computers and can now help teach younger kids.”

Enable it. Encourage young people to talk about their values and the kind of person they want to be. What do they want to contribute to the world? Notice sparks of potential purpose in children’s interests and guide them toward opportunities to engage with them in meaningful and productive ways, such as volunteering or joining a club. No matter their age, children can be helpful to others.


Try This:

My Values

Identify your values and write about why they are important to you.


About the Authors

Heather Malin is a senior research scholar at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, where she conducts research on youth purpose development. She is the author of Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning. Prior to her career in research, she taught K-12 students in schools and out-of-school programs and provided pre-service and in-service teacher training. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and an MA from Teachers College Columbia University.

William Damon is Professor of Education at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. He is the author of The Path to Purpose, Noble Purpose,and several other writings on the development of purpose across the lifespan. Damon’s other books include Greater Expectations (winner of the Parent’s Choice Book Award); Some Do Care: Lives of Moral Commitment (with Anne Colby); and Good Work (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Damon is a member of the National Academy of Education and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014.


Related Thoughts of the Week

View All


Character is more than just purpose.

There are many other strengths of heart, mind, and will.

learn more about character