A sense of purpose is an important and teachable attribute. Studies find that pursuing one’s purpose is associated with psychological well-being. Individuals with a sense of purpose report they are happier, more satisfied with their lives, and more hopeful about the future. Knowing your purpose is also associated with improved physical health, including lower stress hormone levels, improved cardiovascular and metabolic markers, reduced pain, a regression in some cancers, and longevity.
Institutions of higher learning are beginning to see that their responsibilities include creating a framework for students to understand themselves and their pathways to success. In Student Success in Higher Education: Developing the Whole Person through High-Impact Practices, we describe college and university programs, courses, and workshops that teach students a framework for future success and emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. The “north star” of all of these frameworks is life purpose.
Colleges that teach students life purpose
At Bates College in Maine, students participate in Purposeful Work, a program to connect their higher purpose to their professions.
The University of Minnesota offers a course on “taking charge of your health and well-being” by discovering your life purpose. The University explains that living on purpose feels alive, clear, and authentic, and those who are purposeful may experience “flow,” a state of total absorption in which time seems to disappear and a person can feel content and fulfilled.
Harvard University in Massachusetts offers life-purpose workshops through its freshman seminar, in which advisors and faculty facilitate reflection to make meaning from experience.
The opportunity to be self-reflective enables a student to think about life and one’s place in it. To make meaning requires taking classroom concepts or advice from professional advisors and relating these to one’s self, such as, “How does this content relate to me and inform my dreams for my life?”
Shaping a campus-wide academic mission
The University of Michigan uses integrated learning to impart an understanding of life purpose across the entire institution. The University has found that by placing the student at the center of their curricula and co-curricular learning, they are better able to establish self-authorship, navigate conflict, create their own learning, and identify and understand multiple perspectives. They are interested in measuring whether students understand and can direct themselves as learners to recognize personal strengths and challenges and identify passions, interests, and sources of individual influences. They want students to be able to identify personal values, beliefs, and purpose and to understand how these inform creating learning and professional goals.
Cornell University in New York has elevated student health and well-being to the mission level, and measures life purpose as an essential outcome. Cornell’s strategic plan states that it is a priority and responsibility to teach coping and life skills to students as a part of its academic mission, and “nurturing student health and well-being” is a priority. The University addresses competencies in motivation, commitment, meaning-making, and having a sense of a larger purpose.
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