For teens, having a sense of purpose promotes happiness, well-being

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Finding a sense of purpose in life can sound intimidating at any age, but there’s something especially overwhelming about adolescence. Teens are expected to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives during high school, all while juggling the demands of schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and if there’s any time leftover, some semblance of a social life. So, while it’s understandable that a sense of purpose can easily fall to the wayside of more practical, day-to-day worries and responsibilities for the average adolescent, new research shows that teens who hold a sense of purpose in life have greater happiness and well-being

Scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign report adolescents who feel a greater sense of purpose may be happier and more satisfied with life in comparison to their peers who feel less purposeful. These findings come via a survey of over 200 teens.

While the value of a sense of purpose among adults has been well documented by various earlier studies, far less has been established about the effects of purposefulness in adolescents. As touched on earlier, adolescence is a delicate age; teens are tasked with developing their identities and making choices that reflect who they are as well as who they want to be.

Educational psychology professor Kaylin Ratner of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign led this project, which focused on tracking how youths’ feelings of purposefulness related to their daily levels of life satisfaction and subjective well-being.

“Teens who scored high on purpose were more satisfied with their lives and experienced more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions,” says Ratner, who collected the data while working as a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University, in a media release. “Importantly, we found that on the days when these adolescents felt more purposeful than usual, they also tended to experience greater well-being.”

The study also examined how subclinical autistic traits falling below the actual diagnostic threshold for autism (behavioral and cognitive patterns, like poor social skills and difficulty shifting one’s attention) were associated with the teens’ sense of purpose in life and their overall happiness.

Monitoring happiness and purpose in teens’ daily lives

Every day for a total of 70 days the study subjects (teens between ages 14-19) rated how purposeful they felt, how satisfied they were with their life, and the levels of positive and negative emotions they were feeling that day. All included teens had been participating in GripTape, a nationwide nonprofit aimed at instilling a sense of agency in youths by providing them with the resources necessary to pursue a 10-week Learning Challenge project of their choosing.

Applicants with accepted Learning Challenge proposals receive up to a $500 grant and an introduction to an adult mentor who supports them in pursuing a project they are passionate about. Such projects include starting a small business or researching higher education resources for undocumented teens. At the start of the Learning Challenge, subjects filled out a 28-item survey assessing their levels of subclinical autistic traits. According to Prof. Ratner, a higher aggregate score suggested the teen had more of these traits.

Study authors also tracked day-to-day variations in purposefulness by simply subtracting subjects’ daily purpose score from their dispositional level of purpose. Regarding daily assessments, subjects rated how much they were feeling four positive emotions (content, relaxed, enthusiastic or joyful), as well as four negative emotions (angry, anxious, sluggish or sad).

Additionally, teens’ composite positive and negative emotional affect scores, as well as their life satisfaction scores, were used to assess psychological well-being. Researchers report when a teen felt more purposeful than usual on any single day it was a unique predictor of emotional well-being on those days, regardless of their dispositional level of purposefulness.

“Our findings show that no matter where you are in comparison with your peers, when you feel more purposeful than usual, you have better outcomes,” Prof. Ratner adds. “Purpose is accessible to everyone. What we need to do is help individuals feel more purposeful from day to day.”

‘Promoting purposefulness may enhance well-being of young people’

Study participants with greater levels of subclinical autistic traits usually reported higher levels of negative feelings, and lower levels of life satisfaction and positive feelings on a day to day basis. That being said, the strength of the association between well-being and daily purpose was not moderated by these traits, researchers clarify.

In simpler terms, teens who had more of these traits seemed generally capable of enjoying well-being benefits at levels equal to their peers who had fewer of these traits. Prof. Ratner adds, though, that this work may have yielded different findings if it included youths with known clinical diagnoses of autism.

“Our 70-day study is one of the most consistent examinations of youths’ purposefulness to date and helps cement the beneficial influence it has on their well-being,” Prof. Ratner concludes. “With the groundwork laid by this study, interventions that promote purposefulness may be viable routes to enhancing the well-being of many young people, including neurodiverse youths.”

Adolescents included in this research were 70 percent female. Meanwhile, close to 31 percent were Asian, 22 percent were African American or Black, 18 percent were White and 14 percent were Hispanic. Since this sample was not representative of the gender and racial and ethnic diversity seen among teens within the greater U.S. population, study authors caution these findings may not be generalizable.

The study is published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.