What is your purpose?

Over the weekend, I bumped into the same three words – “sense of purpose” — everywhere I went.

I read about new research showing that people with a sense of purpose are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, even if their brains develop all of the signatures tangles and plaques.

A sense of purpose is also one of the keys to achieving happiness, according to Dartmouth History Prof. Darrin McMahon, who spoke at Class Day Exercises the day before graduation.

And developing a sense of purpose can help lift a person out of debilitating depression, according to a case study in this month’s Scientific American Mind.

Developing this sense of purpose – a reason and motivation for your life work and choices– is clearly critical to a healthy, happy adult life. How to help a young person develop a sense of purpose is less clear. It’s too soft, too intangible and in many ways too personal.

How do we even talk about it with high school students?

Some young people find this sense of purpose in religion or athletics or personal intellectual pursuits, but for many of our students, adolescence is merely about doing “what we tell you” until they’re old enough to be free.

And once they are free, they do not feel prepared for the overwhelming, open-ended world in front of them. If you haven’t developed a sense of purpose first, it’s hard to make good decisions about what career to pursue, where to live, how to live, who to date. It’s too easy to let accidents or other people determine your course.

What can we do to help our students develop a sense of purpose while they are still in our classrooms? There is no easy answer, but I think we can take a few steps in that direction.

First, we need to be clear about the relevance of our lessons. If we help teenagers understand the purpose behind what we are asking them to do, they start to develop the idea that purpose itself is a worthy goal. “Because I said so” may work well for disciplining toddlers, but it doesn’t work for creating meaning in work.

Second, we need to be role models for a purposeful life. If we act like teaching is just a job and we exhibit cynicism and passivity, our students won’t expect better for themselves. How many already hear a parent complain every night about work? If we treat our job as a worthy endeavor, they may envision a future where they can do something that matters.

Finally, we can help open paths to purpose for them. Many individual teachers and organizations sponsor outreach activities for students, like serving meals at local homeless shelters, raking for senior citizens, or building homes with Habitat for Humanity. Others help students find meaning in activities like theatre, journalism, junior ROTC and environmental clubs.

Of all the places I encountered “sense of purpose” this weekend, the most compelling was the Scientific American Mind case study on Frank, whose severe depression left him homebound and nearly broke, even after anti-depressants and several rounds of psychotherapy.

What finally helped him was “behavioral-activation” therapy, which focuses on doing rather than feeling. The author quotes another therapist, Dr. V, who explains that depressed people often think they need to feel better before they can make changes. “I would say, ‘start making the changes now, and you will likely feel better.’”

Perhaps the best we can do for our students is to encourage them to start doing – and finding out what they enjoy – rather than simply marking time in our classrooms.