How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose

Echoing Green is a global social venture fund. Since 1987, Echoing Green has identified extraordinary emerging social entrepreneurs with bold ideas for social change and provided them with seed money and technical assistance to launch innovative organizations around the world.                        

By Vicki Zakrzewski | June 11, 2013 |

Imagine being Ryan Hreljac’s first grade teacher. After telling your class of six and seven year olds that children in Africa are dying because of lack of clean water, Ryan, one of your students, is so moved he has to do something. What starts as extra vacuuming at home to earn money for wells eventually turns into Ryan’s Well Foundation that, to-date, has brought safe water and sanitation services to over 789,900 people.

As his teacher, you helped Ryan start on the path to a life purpose, which, according to research, may be one of the greatest services you ever render to your students.

William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, states that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates amongst our youth. One sample statistic: the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.

To combat this meaninglessness, Damon argues that students need to find a purpose in life—something that is meaningful to themselves and that also serves the greater good. In a series of studies of over 1,200 youth ages 12 to 26, Damon found that those who were actively pursuing a clear purpose reaped tremendous benefits that were both immediate and that could also last a lifetime.

More immediate benefits included extra positive energy that not only kept students motivated, but also helped them acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue their purpose, making them very strong learners. Youth with a strong sense of purpose also benefited from positive emotions such as gratitude, self-confidence, optimism, and a deep sense of fulfillment—all of which scientists have found help prevent depression and anxiety.

Students who carry this sense of purpose into adulthood may also benefit in the long run. Research shows that adults who feel their lives have meaning and purpose are happier, more successful at work, and have stronger relationships.

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How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose