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.
Addressing well-being needs
College students are attempting to put together their pathways to success and well-being, but at the same time they are entering colleges and universities with expanded needs and more mental and physical challenges and illnesses. With rising incidences of student anxiety and depression, higher-ed leaders say the waiting lists for CAPS services are growing, and as one university vice president of student affairs said, “We are not going to find enough money to remedy the situation.”
In light of the growing needs, institutions can use the teaching of purpose to empower students and relay to students the interconnectedness between well-being and student success. The Center for the Self in School’s Success Predictor is an assessment and intervention instrument that can be used in summer bridge, freshman seminar, and CAPS prevention programming to teach college students how to inquire and formulate their unique life purpose and shape a plan for well-being. Our research and work shows that when students identify a higher purpose that is driving their thoughts, feelings, and actions—a DNA of consciousness—it transforms their quality of life.
Bringing purpose of life to all universities
What do the visionary institutions mentioned in this article know that other institutions can emulate?
Institutions of higher learning need to convey that having a sense of purpose is an important tool that should re-examined throughout one’s life. Teaching students to explore a sense of purpose can raise their awareness of diverse perspectives and the challenges of adult life. Exploring a sense of purpose can awaken awareness of one’s unique interests, strengths, and values, and provide a focus for specific projects, academic choices, and careers. On a larger scale, purpose can inform a lifetime of relationships, community involvement, citizenship, and spirituality.
Learning about purpose is not meant to intimidate students with fears they may never find their “perfect path,” but rather to provide pathways through adversity. We encourage students to consider their inner and spiritual calling to contribute to the human condition in a way that is unique to their life experiences and views of the greater good.
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