“Earn that pretzel”: How youth think about purpose and meaning in life
“What is purpose in life?” “What is meaning in life?” Questions about our senses of purpose and meaning in life have stimulated thinkers since the days of Aristotle. Generally, scholars describe purpose as a prospective, overarching life aim that guides goals and everyday behaviors, whereas meaning is the feeling that life “makes sense” and is significant. Still, theorists are far from consensus regarding the nuances and association of purpose and meaning in life. Whether purpose and meaning are so closely related that they are synonymous, positioned hierarchically, or substantively distinct from one another remains up for debate.
The blurred lines between purpose and meaning in the empirical literature are troubling considering evidence that purpose and meaning have different downstream correlates. However, more concerning is that we currently have no way of knowing how youth interpret the prompts we use to study these senses. As such, the field is left to wonder:
- Do youth think about purpose and meaning in life in the same way that researchers do (and if so, which researchers)?
- Do youth see purpose and meaning as synonyms, related but distinct, or as mutually exclusive?
- Does this understanding change depending upon their developmental context, or the resources available in their immediate environment?
Answers to these questions are integral to the validity of our research, and the eventual translation of this research into everyday practice.
To address this gap, I spearheaded the use of data from a project led by PRYDE co-director, Dr. Anthony Burrow, wherein high school and college students were asked to write about purpose, meaning, or their school work (a control condition). Apart from analyzing the quantitative data associated with this project, we will be examining the writing samples themselves for a glimpse into how young people construe what it means to have purpose and meaning. Specifically, we will test whether descriptions of purpose and meaning depend on assignment to writing condition, and if these descriptions further depend on whether the participants were in high school or college at the time of data collection.
For this project, I have teamed up with six bright undergraduates from Cornell University, including two members of the 2019 PRYDE Scholars cohort, Elena Gupta and Carúmey Stevens. Our team has been surprised (and heartened) by some emergent trends in our data: While purpose and meaning are often conflated, nearly all participants note their value. Indeed, although preliminary, we are beginning to see that young people overwhelmingly understand the positive implications of sensing purpose and meaning in life. Further, it has been interesting to observe the complex and varied ideas youth put forth about what it means to sense purpose and meaning, the sources from which these senses are derived, and who can find them. Below, I have listed some of our favorite responses (edited for clarity).
When asked to write about purpose in life:
“For my life to have a purpose, it means that I have had some clear path in my life and that has directly affected at least one other person. It means that I have done something of worth in my life and that I feel positive about that action.” – Female, 16
“This isn't necessarily a purpose, but I was going through a depression some time ago, each week I looked forward to the pretzels they sold after school only on Fridays. That's not a purpose, but that was my weekly benchmark. I'll do as best as I can and I'll make it to Friday to earn that pretzel. Everyone is able to find their task to earn their ‘pretzel.’” – Male, 17
When asked to write about meaning in life:
“I do think my life has a meaning because if it doesn't why would I have been put on this planet, with my family, friends, and people around me? This sense of meaning comes from within, it comes from what you believe and why you believe it. I do think having a sense of meaning in life … shows [people] that there is something in life they can do, shows that they can be better, [and] shows them that this is why they’re here.” – Female, 17
“I think that for my life to have meaning, I would have to better myself every chance I get. I think that meaning comes from what you do, and if you know what you're doing, what the end result is your meaning. Your meaning in life could be good or bad, but no one is on the road to nowhere.” – Female, 16
What is clear from the literature to date is that individuals stand to gain from taking a moment to reflect on their senses of purpose and meaning in life. However, without knowing how the public interprets our writing prompts, we limit our ability to understand what benefits may stem from asking youth to articulate these senses in the first place. Furthermore, without knowing how youth think about purpose and meaning, researchers are left to rely on creating definitions and measures of these constructs in the absence of real-world perspectives. By adding to our body of knowledge some insight into what young people think about when asked to discuss their purpose or meaning, it is our hope that the present study will be a first step toward more effective practical applications, in 4-H and beyond.