According to William Damon, a developmental psychologist at Stanford, purpose has two important dimensions. First, purpose is a “stable and farreaching” goal. Most of our goals are mundane and immediate, like getting to work on time, going to the gym, or doing the dishes. Purpose, by contrast, is a goal toward which we are always working. It is the forward- pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives. Second, purpose involves a contribution to the world. It is, Damon writes with his colleagues, “a part of one’s personal search for meaning, but it also has an external component, the desire to make a difference in the world, to contribute to matters larger than the self.”
When Damon looked closely at emerging adults 12 to 22 years old in a major study he conducted with his colleagues between 2003 and 2007, he found that only 20 percent of them had a fully developed, prosocial purpose that they were actively working toward. Purposeful youth are more motivated at school, get better grades, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like drug use. But 8 out of 10 of the young people Damon studied did not yet have a clear sense of where their lives were going.