Finding Purpose: Discover the relationship between purpose and healthy growth

A Note from Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, BeInkandescent Health & Wellness magazine — It is an honor to introduce our readers to Kendall Cotton Bronk, Ph.D., the Principal Investigator for the Adolescent Moral Development Lab and a Professor of Psychology in the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the Claremont Graduate University.

What she does: Her research has explored the relationship between purpose and healthy growth, the ways young people discover purpose, and the developmental trajectory of youth with strong commitments to various purposes in life. Her work has been funded by the Spencer Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the Fulbright Foundation.

Why she does it: “As a developmental scientist, I am interested in studying and promoting positive youth development and the moral growth of young people. Most recently, I have investigated these topics through the lens of young people’s purposes in life.”

Please scroll down to learn more about Kendall’s work in a paper she recently published. 

What Makes a Purpose “Worth Having”?

In “Are All Purposes Worth Having?” (Burrow et al. 2021, this issue, DOI 10.1159/000515176), the authors astutely point out that research on purpose to date has rarely considered whether all purposes are indeed worth pursuing. This is an important question to address. In recent years, as purpose increasingly has become seen as a desirable developmental capacity, there has been a groundswell of efforts designed to foster purpose in K-12 schools, business and professional settings, and civic life (Malin, 2018). Identifying worthwhile types of purposes could provide such purpose-cultivating programs with guidance about what types of purposes they should strive to cultivate.

Conversely, identifying purposes that are unworthy on some rational basis would guide what purposes to avoid or discourage. Assuming that some purposes may be worthwhile and others unworthy, how are we to determine which? In raising this question, the authors (Burrow et al., 2021, this issue) assert that congruence and feasibility are key criteria to consider. Congruence, or the degree to which a purpose in life is supported by the individuals and institutions in the individual’s ecology (e.g., an individual’s family, community, broader culture), is the first criterion the authors propose. In the congruence standard, purposes that align or “fit” well within a person’s cultural context are likely to be worthwhile.

Feasibility, or the ease with which a purpose can be pursued, is the second criterion the authors propose. Purposes that are more readily attainable, the authors argue, are more worth pursuing than ones that are difficult to achieve.

In this commentary, we suggest that, although these 2 criteria may be useful indicators of some worthwhile purposes, they may validate some unworthy purposes. There may be purposes endorsed by an individual’s cultural context and are readily attainable but are nevertheless not worthwhile to pursue on either adaptive or ethical grounds. Moreover, there may be purposes in conflict with the present cultural context, and ones that also are difficult to pursue, that nevertheless are practically and/or morally worth pursuing.

The question of what makes a purpose worth having must be viewed from 2 perspectives: the person who commits to the purpose and the society that bears the consequences of that person’s purpose. A purpose that is “worth having” must benefit both. Often, as the authors correctly assert, a purpose that is congruent with present social norms and readily attainable will indeed benefit both the purposeful person and that person’s society – a nurse healing the ill, a parent raising children, a teacher educating students – in such cases the actors gain personal benefits and contribute to the social good. But in other cases, some purposes that are misaligned with the person’s cultural context and difficult to attain may, in fact, be worthwhile.

For example, the physicist Galileo was condemned and sentenced to house arrest for correctly determining that the Earth revolved around the sun. Here it is important to consider progressive purposes that seek to improve upon current conditions. Such purposes are likely to be ahead of their time and unpopular, albeit ultimately valuable to society.

Moreover, on the unworthy side, certain personal purposes harm others through violent acts, support unjust political systems, or destroy needed environmental resources. Are such purposes “worth having”? Before taking a deeper dive into these issues, it is important to establish what makes a purpose worthy.

More: To read the entire paper, send us an email, and we’ll share the pdf.