Sense of Purpose and Thriving: A College Student’s Perspective
Photo by: Henry Suarez
College is a time for personal growth, social exploration, and the pursuit of excellence. However, it is also a time of preparation for the “real world,” where future-oriented pressure eats away at the student body. Struggle. Stress. Failure. Mental illness. There are many obstacles that can impede a student’s paths towards thriving.1 As a college student myself, I’ve found that one thing that helps me thrive is my sense of purpose. I’m a sophomore at Colby College, where I major in psychology, minor in creative writing, and play baseball. Throughout this pandemic, I’ve come to realize that having a sense of purpose is especially important since it’s easy to fall behind and get lost in the madness. Even for students like me who are lucky enough to live on campus, there are endless Zoom calls, no organized sports, and heavy restrictions on social gatherings. The prospect of thriving can seem like it is drifting thousands of miles away. However, as long as you find a sense of purpose, it is within an arm’s reach.
Purpose as an Enduring and Attainable Goal
What exactly is “sense of purpose?” Purpose is the degree to which a person perceives meaning in their life and its goals.2 Since college students narrow down their life goals to prioritize personally valuable ones, universities are bustling cradles for purpose development. However, even when someone does not have a specific purpose, simply having a sense of purpose can act as a catalyst for student growth that promotes hope, grit, and self-efficacy, along with the agency needed to act upon ambitions.2 In other words, benefitting from purpose is easier than you might think. But how do you find sense of purpose? It varies from person to person, but studies have shown that purpose can be developed through participating in campus activities, spending time with mentors, or experiencing meaningful events.2 Purpose might not be something college students can purchase at a local store; but once you have determination, or even curiosity, it becomes an accessible enhancer of thriving.
How Purpose Helps Me Thrive
There are many ways that a sense of purpose relates to thriving. For me, they are both connected to passion. For instance, even though I have not found a specific direction in life, I’ve found something that brings me joy: surfing. I believe that surfing helps me find purpose partly because it is a long-term interest. To make things more clear, let’s talk about baseball. I absolutely love playing baseball. It has instilled in me a healthy sense of competitiveness, stability, drive, and resilience that will forever boost my ability to deal with adversity even though I have come to realize that my baseball career will end in three years. Surfing, on the other hand, gives me more fulfillment because it has the potential to be a lifelong hobby. Knowing that I will have a driving passion for as long as I live provides me with a purpose to keep living. It also gives me a high incentive to be successful so that I can afford the leisure to surf often. In this way, surfing—my passion-derived purpose—has influenced me to be more goal-oriented in my life decisions. For instance, I finish my homework so I can surf. I stay out of trouble so I can surf. I make plans with friends so I can surf (funny how it’s not the other way around). Although I have surfed for most of my life, it was not until college that I was able to utilize it as the source of purpose and thriving.
Having Purpose Beyond the Self
It is also important to recognize contribution beyond the self as an essential component of purpose,3 and un-coincidentally, thriving. Every summer, I volunteer as a surf instructor for Operation Progress, a program based in Watts (a region in Los Angeles) that funds summer activities for underprivileged children. I am also an active member of the Colby Surf Club, where I help teach others how to surf. Whenever I teach people, I do it with the intention that I can lead them to develop a passion and purpose similar to mine. Surfing also helps me contribute beyond myself because it keeps my well-being, positive emotions, and motivation at a high level, which enables me to practice kindness, generosity, and be my best self for others. Assisting others also helps me find purpose. The desire to thrive for others is one of the main roots of purpose, and purpose is one of the main roots of thriving. In other words, purpose beyond oneself is not a one way street; it is a cycle that strengthens itself.
A sense of purpose is essential for thriving, both for yourself and others. For college students especially, finding a sense of purpose is crucial yet feasible. College is tough, but in the end, overcoming and learning from adversity defines thriving. As far as purpose development in college goes, you might find something new, or, if you’re like me, you’ll be able to transform an already existing interest into a purpose driver. The bottom line is, purpose is out there, and yours is waiting to be found.
1. Check out The Purpose Challenge, a resource targeted to helping high schoolers develop their purpose before entering college.
2. Learn more about the power of purpose for college students: https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2020-31789-002
3. To learn more on how to help youth find a sense of purpose, read William Damon’s The Path to Purpose.