Since the Greater Good Science Center was founded in 2001 we have written about purpose and meaning as being among the fundamental building blocks of emotional well-being. Research studies have long suggested that a strong sense of purpose is linked to greater mental and physical health, and have also explored the interpersonal dimension of purpose: a sense of meaning that comes primarily from what one does for or gives to others, rather than from what one receives.
A personal sense of purpose is complex. It can correlate with the feeling of happiness, although it doesn’t have to. In fact, purpose often involves stress and challenge. There is also a temporal dimension to purpose, in that it involves thinking about one’s past, present, and future, the connection between them, and the positive effects in the world caused by our actions. And, perhaps most profoundly, an ingrained sense of purpose is durable—not fleeting.
Research suggests that the development of purpose is linked to the development of identity, which peaks during youth. Thus compelling young people to cultivate a sense of purpose and adopt a vision of the world beyond oneself has profound effects over the course of their lifetime to come.
The GGSC, in partnership with the social change firm ProSocial and the John Templeton Foundation, began the Purpose Challenge in 2016. This 18-month project analyzes the scientific research about purpose, collects and translates these resources for the public, and hosts an essay-writing contest for high school students who can infuse what they learn into their 2018 college applications.
The central hub for the Purpose Challenge will be a new website that will house a purpose “toolkit,” the essay contest submission portal, and a variety of other resources. The aim of the Toolkit is to help students understand the nature and importance of purpose as it relates to their own lives. That greater general understanding of purpose—what it is, where it comes from, the research-based benefits of living a life of purpose, empirically validated strategies for identifying purpose—might result in stronger, more authentic college essay statements. But more importantly, it will help adolescents to think about what it means to truly live a life of purpose as they approach the end of high school, the start of college, and their life beyond.