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Addressing Important Questions in the Field of

Adolescent Purpose
Patrick L. Hill,1 Anthony L. Burrow,2 and Rachel Sumner2
Carleton University and 2Cornell University

ABSTRACTIn this review, we discuss three questions deliberative and thoughtful examinations of where they are going
about the importance of studying purpose as a construct in life. However, research suggests that youth who engage mean-
relevant to adolescence. We consider how finding a pur- ingfully in such examination tend to flourish during adolescence.
pose can help youth answer questions such as Who am For instance, some use their adolescence to find their purpose
I? and Where am I going? and summarize the benefits in life, a direction that appears remarkably stable from late ado-
of finding a purpose during adolescence. Purposeful lescence into middle adulthood (Hill, Burrow, Brandenberger,
youth are more agentic and driven in their lives, as well as Lapsley, & Quaranto, 2010). This potential for positive and self-
happier and less susceptible to risks common in adoles- directed development may come as a surprise to readers from
cence. We conclude by identifying areas that merit study, outside this research area, and even to some adolescents them-
including the need to understand which contexts best scaf- selves.
fold the development of purpose among youth and the Therefore, adolescents and researchers alike may need to be
need for experimental research to strengthen causal convinced to consider the role of purpose during this develop-
claims. mental period. Toward this end, we organize our discussion not
as an exhaustive review of the literature, but rather as topics for
KEYWORDSpurpose; adolescence; positive youth develop-
conversation either among researchers or with adolescents. In so
ment; agency
doing, we focus on research using adolescent samples to address
questions important to adolescents. We conclude by addressing
During adolescence, the search to understand who one is and further study in this field.
where one is going can lead some to engage in seemingly imma-
ture activities, such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, or WHO AM I AND WHAT IS TRULY IMPORTANT TO ME?
taking other unnecessary risks. Other youth may avoid trying to
answer these questions altogether, which can lead to long-term Understanding who one is remains one of the questions most fre-
difficulties with self and identity development. Indeed, some quently wrestled with by adolescents (Erikson, 1968). Indeed,
youth may ask why they should spend their adolescent years in resolving the identity crisis and forming a sense of self that is
independent from ones parents is perhaps the central develop-
mental task of adolescence. As such, we must consider how dis-
Patrick L. Hill, Department of Psychology, Carleton University;
Anthony L. Burrow and Rachel Sumner, Department of Human covering a purpose can lead adolescents to better understand
Development, Cornell University. who they are and what they want out of life. Prior to exploring
This material is based upon work supported by the National the evidence for this claim, we must first define the construct of
Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant purpose and why it is unique from others that are similar theo-
DGE-0707428. The authors would like to thank Robin Young for retically.
her comments on a version of this manuscript. Having a purpose entails setting aims and objectives that
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to define what one strives toward in life, a foundation that in turn
Patrick L. Hill, A515 Loeb Building, 1125 Colonel By Drive,
serves to organize daily, weekly, and long-term goals and behav-
Department of Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON,
Canada K1S 5B6; e-mail: patrick_hill@carleton.ca. ior (e.g., Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003; McKnight & Kashdan,
2009). Purpose in life thus is superordinate to personal goals
2013 The Authors
Child Development Perspectives 2013 The Society for Research in Child Development and strivings, and can determine which activities one finds per-
DOI: 10.1111/cdep.12048 sonally expressive (see Waterman, 1993, 2005), or the settings

Volume 7, Number 4, 2013, Pages 232236

Purpose in Adolescence 233

that should be most conducive to flow experiences, or those tial for confusion about self. Although committing to a purpose
instances when an individuals active engagement matches the may not require striving toward it (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009),
task at hand (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Further- commitment to purpose motivates youth to strive toward
more, purpose can clarify what one finds meaningful in life something. Adolescents who have a purpose report much greater
(Baumeister, 1991). To understand how these effects operate, agency in their daily lives, showing a greater propensity to
one must consider that purpose can be investigated both with engage in goal-related activities (Bronk et al., 2009; Burrow
respect to its content, as examining which life goals participants et al., 2010). Adolescents with a sense of purpose also believe
deem most important (e.g., Hill et al., 2010; Quinn, 2013), as they can find ways around obstacles in their lives. In other
well as how committed one is to his or her purpose. For words, they possess both the will and the way (Snyder et al.,
instance, individuals can nominate purposes in areas such as 1991).
helping others, seeking recognition from colleagues, succeeding Why is this link between purpose and hope particularly valu-
in financial or occupational domains, or even producing creative able for adolescents? First, during this developmental period,
work. Identifying the content of purpose can help answer Who individuals begin to make decisions on their own and tend to
am I? by describing what the person strives toward, whereas make some mistakes along the way. Without some hope in their
commitment to purpose serves to solidify that self-knowledge future success, adolescents may become prone to self-doubt and
and promote personal continuity. discouraged about their fate. Second, adolescence is a time to
Given this link to self-similitude, the closest conceptual corre- deal with new developmental challenges in the family, relation-
late of purpose during adolescence may be identity commitment. ships, and school. Hope is valuable during this developmental
If finding a purpose provides one with a self-defining direction period (Gillham & Reivich, 2004; Snyder, 2005) because it
for life, then adolescents may need a purpose to fully understand helps youth find ways around the difficulties of adolescence.
who they are. Purpose commitment may help resolve the adoles- Third, although many developmental researchers have focused
cent identity crisis (e.g., Erikson, 1968; Hill & Burrow, 2012). on adolescents transition to adult roles, greater awareness is
Levels of identity commitment and purpose commitment are needed regarding which individuals will transition best to
positively related among adolescents (Burrow, ODell, & Hill, emerging adult roles. Emerging adulthood is defined by changes
2010), and adolescents who increase their commitment on one in and opportunities to advance vocational and relationship roles
construct over time tend to gain on the other as well (Hill & (Arnett, 2000). Prior to entering this period, it helps to develop
Burrow, 2012). However, a purpose does not fully define ones a disposition toward actively and persistently pursuing goals
identity, as life goals may or may not contain information about across all domains, which having a purpose apparently does.
social and cultural relationships, political and ideological views,
or personal skills irrelevant to advancing ones life goals. As WHATS IN IT FOR ME?
such, when describing ones identity, an individual may often
refer to his or her purpose (Bronk, 2011), but finding a purpose Given the tasks and pressures facing adolescents, some teenag-
provides only a partial yet important answer to the question of ers may question whether it is fruitful to spend their limited time
who one is. looking for a purpose or if this is a task they can put off until
Although adolescents commonly describe purpose as a foun- adulthood. The process of self-exploration is not a particularly
dation or direction for life, they discuss other essential identity enjoyable one, often wrought with bouts of psychological ill-
components less frequently in their definitions of purpose (Hill, being and distress (Kidwell, Dunham, Bacho, Pastorino, & Por-
Burrow, ODell, & Thornton, 2010). For instance, teenagers are tes, 1995; Schwartz, Zamboanga, Weisskirch, & Rodriguez,
much less likely to define purpose with respect to occupational 2009). Accordingly, it may be difficult to convince adolescents
or religious themes, two components often assessed when mea- to start the not only rewarding but also arduous process of find-
suring identity commitment (e.g., Balistreri, Busch-Rossnagel, & ing a purpose.
Geisinger, 1995). Therefore, not only are identity and purpose We present three additional reasons why adolescents should
separable empirically (Hill & Burrow, 2012), but adolescents strive toward finding a purpose and, in turn, why researchers
also tend to describe purpose differently from what we consider must create interventions to help adolescents in their pursuit
identity. Purpose can help youth start to define who they are, (e.g., see Pizzolato, Brown, & Kanny, 2011, for initial efforts).
but it may also be viewed as being instrumental for pointing First, purposeful adolescents are happier adolescents. Commit-
youth in the right direction. ting to a purpose positively correlates with multiple markers of
well-being during the adolescent years (e.g., Bronk et al., 2009;
WHERE AM I GOING IN LIFE AND HOW CAN I GET Burrow et al., 2010; Kiang, 2012). These effects hold even at
THERE? the daily level, where purposeful youth tend to report more posi-
tive affect from one day to the next (Burrow & Hill, 2011), and
Purpose in life can be viewed as a lighthouse, directing youth daily positive fluctuations in purpose coincide with being hap-
through the fog of the adolescent years, a period with the poten- pier during that day (Kiang, 2012). Similar associations are also

Child Development Perspectives, Volume 7, Number 4, 2013, Pages 232236

234 Patrick L. Hill, Anthony L. Burrow, and Rachel Sumner

seen in research on daily behaviors. Specifically, emerging eudemonic well-being. For instance, remarkably similar instru-
adults report greater well-being on days in which they engaged ments are used to study purpose and meaning, with researchers
in activities that were imbued with meaning and purpose often borrowing items from one another (Steger, Frazier, Oishi,
(Steger, Kashdan, & Oishi, 2008). One mechanism underlying & Kaler, 2006). Accordingly, work is needed to more cleanly
the link between purposeful engagement and well-being may be distinguish these constructs based on the theoretical distinctions
the relation between purpose and hope described earlier (Bronk noted in the literature.
et al., 2009). Another possibility is that purposeful youth experi- Moreover, studies are needed to clarify the process by which
ence positive flow experiences more often because they put individuals come to find a purpose, given the multiple routes that
themselves in settings that allow for it and set proximal goals exploration may take (Kashdan & McKnight, 2009), as well as the
that are both challenging and allow for feedback on progress potential settings and contexts involved. One seemingly important
toward purpose (see Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, for context is the home environment: Research has demonstrated the
more on producing flow). Purposeful youth thus are more likely long-term effects of positive maternal and paternal parenting
to experience engaged living (Froh et al., 2010), demonstrate practices on adolescents sense of purpose in life (Shek, 1999)
greater passion, and be more absorbed in their daily activities, and family conflict is negatively associated with purpose scores
which in turn promotes well-being. (DuRant et al., 1994). Moreover, the extent to which youth assist
Second, purpose appears to buffer against the pratfalls and in family activities appears to positively predict their day-to-day
turbulence of adolescence. For instance, adolescents with fluctuations in purpose (Kiang, 2012). In addition, the broader
greater purpose appear less likely to drink alcohol and use environmental context will likely play a prominent role in youths
drugs (Kinnier, Metha, Okey, & Keim, 1994; Minehan, New- purpose development, as seen in work linking exposure to
comb, & Galaif, 2000). In addition, teenagers in high-risk envi- violence to lower levels of purpose in life among at-risk youth
ronments report less use of violence when they have a sense of (DuRant et al., 1994) as well as the literature demonstrating the
purpose in life (DuRant, Cadenhead, Pendergrast, Slavens, & potential for the environment to influence identity formation (e.g.,
Linder, 1994). Finally, youth with purpose in life are less likely Phillips & Pittman, 2003; Yoder, 2000). Research should exam-
to be depressed or to have suicidal thoughts (e.g., Dukes & Lorch, ine these effects across different samples and socioeconomic
1989; DuRant et al., 1994; Kinnier et al., 1994). Therefore, not categories to determine which contexts best promote and discour-
only does purpose promote positive outcomes during adoles- age the development of purpose. For instance, environmental
cence, but it also may reduce risk for maladaptive outcomes. and socioeconomic contexts dictate which extracurricular and
Third, purposeful youth may perform better in school, which community activities are available to youth, factors that influence
in turn would prepare them for greater success during emerging purpose exploration and adolescent development more broadly
adulthood (e.g., better university, job, or scholarship opportuni- (e.g., Benson, 2002; Feldman & Matjasko, 2005).
ties). Purposeful adolescents report more positive academic self- A final question is, What cant purpose do? Based on the find-
concepts (Dukes & Lorch, 1989), assessed as a combination of ings discussed earlier, it is difficult to think of a domain of ado-
students satisfaction with and perceived importance of their lescent life that would not benefit from a sense of purpose. If
academic achievement. In addition, purposeful teenagers tend purpose begets greater subjective well-being while reducing the
to perform better on intelligence tasks (Minehan et al., 2000). likelihood of substance use and psychological symptoms,
Moreover, an intervention to promote purpose and sense of inter- purpose should have manifold positive effects. Such a claim is
nal control among high school students led to grade point aver- further supported by the wealth of developmental benefits
age gains (Pizzolato et al., 2011). However, while studies like associated with identity commitment (e.g., Crocetti, Rubini, &
these are promising, more work is needed that links purpose to Meeus, 2008; Luyckx, Schwartz, Goossens, Beyers, & Missotten,
objective academic outcomes (e.g., grade point average, school 2011) and a sense of agency (e.g., Gillham & Reivich, 2004;
retention); this is an important direction for research. Snyder, 2005), two of the variables most connected to commit-
ment to purpose during adolescence. However, the potential for
A DIRECTION FOR PURPOSE RESEARCH these benefits may complicate research on youth purpose as
much as it promotes it. For instance, tests of discriminant valid-
Prior to linking purpose to more objective indicators, the field ity become more challenging when dealing with a variable that
would benefit from more rigorous efforts to measure the con- could be correlated to a wide array of desirable outcomes. In
struct. We have noted the theoretical arguments underpinning turn, it adds to the difficulty in defining purpose as a construct
its distinctiveness from related constructs, but few studies have unique from others in the literature. Therefore, researchers
demonstrated this empirically (although see Hill & Burrow, should define the boundaries of purpose by nominating and
2012). Therefore, researchers need to validate a measure of pur- empirically demonstrating those domains most affected when
pose that not only considers it through the lens of adolescent youth develop a sense of purpose.
developmentrather than as a benchmark of adulthoodbut Such research could look more deeply at the content of pur-
also differentiates it from constructs such as meaning in life and pose (see Quinn, 2013). Work with emerging adults suggests

Child Development Perspectives, Volume 7, Number 4, 2013, Pages 232236

Purpose in Adolescence 235

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