Choosing Purpose . . . at Every Age

Finding work with purpose is trending these days. I spend most of my time thinking about those who want it in their encore careers, but it’s exactly what young people want, and they don’t want to wait to find it. They are determined to grab it from the very start of their working lives. Which is why I’m so jazzed about University of Wisconsin professor Christine Whelan’s new book, The Big Picture: A Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life. It’s the perfect gift for a new graduate — or for any young person stuck on the slow-moving escalator of the early working years.

I’ve been following Whelan’s work, including her books and research on marriage trends, for years. So I was thrilled to discover that she is now firmly entrenched in the research around purpose-oriented work.

Below is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Whelan about the relationship between purpose and happiness and the particular role olders can play in helping youngers find their own version of purpose. (“Olders” and “youngers” aren’t typos; they’re my new favorite terms for talking about who we are, coined by author Ashton Applewhite.)

Marci: Purpose is a buzzword in discussions of work today, and often it’s shorthand for ‘whatever makes you happy.’ Your book focuses on what researchers call ‘prosocial’ purpose. Can you explain what that means, and how prosocial purpose shapes how we feel about our lives?

Christine: Prosocial behavior is defined as activity that benefits other people or society as a whole. If you are building friendships, helping family members, doing something to benefit your community or your peers, you are engaging in prosocial behavior.

Research has repeatedly shown that the real sources of happiness aren’t material goods or job titles but positive social relationships, positive mental health and living in alignment with one’s values.

The Big Picture asks young adults to consider these big questions of purpose as a way to find real happiness — thriving, meaningful happiness — from the start of their careers, and to do so with the mentorship of older adults in their lives who may be exploring those questions, too. (If you want to get a head start in the mentoring process, take a few minutes to respond to the life and career questions here; the Templeton Foundation, Whelan’s publisher, is gathering and sharing the answers.)

Still, putting these principles into action can get complicated, in part because we’re not great at judging what will actually make us happy. In the moment, buying that latte (or that new dress, or those fancy headphones) seems like just the ticket to happiness, but Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton calls this the focusing illusion: We exaggerate the importance of the things we happen to be thinking about, simply because we are thinking about them, instead of the factors that actually matter to happiness. As he puts it, “Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.”

Marci: What has your research shown about young people and purpose?

Christine: Graduates nationwide are seeking direction and purpose. In fact, in a recent national survey we conducted, 18-to-24-year-olds report that purpose is crucial to their sense of being an adult — but they don’t feel like they have it.

More than 86 percent of young adults say that making decisions in line with their purpose makes them an adult, but only 43 percent say they have a clear picture of what they want in life . . . and only 30 percent know why they are here.

This isn’t good news: The majority of young adults who don’t have a clear picture of what they want in life say they are existing, not thriving, while those with purpose are more likely to say they are thriving.

Young adults want to honor their purpose and passions, but they often haven’t figured out exactly what those are just yet: Only 36 percent of 18–24 year olds say that their career path aligns with their life purpose.

My research finds that young people prioritize meaning over salary. As they head into the job market, 69 percent of young adults say that they would be willing to earn less to focus on more meaningful work.

Marci: What opportunities do you see for young people to collaborate with older people who are seeking to do good in the world?

Christine: Purpose is a choice — and it’s a choice that we can make now, regardless of our age or bank balance. For the last few decades, the “purpose conversation” has focused on midlife adults who are reimagining their lives and embracing encore careers. For The Big Picture, I “translated” dozens of purpose guides geared at older adults and, with the help of my students, into applicable exercises for 20-somethings.

According to my research, the number-one piece of advice older adults would share with their 20-year-old selves is to know your purpose before making big decisions. The Big Picture devotes a chapter to finding mentors, and provides questions, exercises and suggestions to facilitate honest, purposeful conversations.

Marci: In many conversations about meaningful work, there is an assumption that doing good means forgoing a good income. It’s why many baby boomers tabled their idealism to pay the bills once kids and mortgages showed up. Do young people today share this attitude?

Christine: This might be the biggest purpose myth out there! Living purposefully does not mean forgoing a good income. Purpose is a choice. The Big Picture is a small-steps guide to support young people who make that choice from the start.

There’s wonderful research on job-crafting for more purposeful interactions at work, and if that doesn’t work, there’s no reason that you can’t live your purpose outside of your paid work: Community involvement, civic leadership, family ties and religious organizations all encourage prosocial, other-centered, meaningful activities.

Marci: Many people hit midlife and still don’t know what they are “meant” to do. It strikes me that many millennials are grappling with exactly the same questions as their boomer parents, and in some cases even their grandparents. What’s your advice to young people who want to do good, but have no idea (yet) of their bigger purpose or career ambitions?

Christine: First of all, they should buy my book!

Take the time to reflect in a systematic way — ask questions about your strengths and passions, identify core values and brainstorm your vision for change in the world. This may sound daunting, but if you break it up into fun, bite-sized exercises, you will boost your self-efficacy and sense of personal accomplishment as you hone in on what matters most to you.

For those with young-adult children, this journey can be taken in tandem. I created a free program to guide parents and their emerging-adult children in purposeful conversations about what’s next in life for them both. As a general rule, it’s best to ask open-ended questions that invite new thoughts (and dialogue) and avoid overly directive inquiries (read this, do that, follow up on one more thing) and resist comparing one young adult’s trajectory to another’s — or to your own life experience.

This article originally appeared on MidcenturyModern.