Cultivating Your Purpose

Having a sense of purpose can be a buffer against the challenges we all face at various stages of life. Purpose can also boost our health and longevity. In the kick-off to our annual You 2.0 series, Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow explains why purpose isn’t something to be found — it’s something we can develop from within.

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Additional Resources

Book: 

The Ecology of Purposeful Living Across the Lifespan: Developmental, Educational, and Social Perspectives, edited by Anthony Burrow and Patrick Hill, Springer, 2020.

Research studies:

Great, purposeful expectations: predicting daily purposefulness during COVID-19 response,

Patrick Hill et al., The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2020.

The Value of a Purposeful Life: Sense of Purpose Predicts Greater Income and Net Worth, Patrick Hill et al., Journal of Research in Personality, 2016.

How many likes did I get?: Purpose moderates links between positive social media feedback and self-esteem, Anthony L. Burrow, Nicolette Rainone, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2016.

Purpose in Life as a Resource for Increasing Comfort with Economic Diversity, Anthony L. Burrow et al., Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2014.

Meaning as a Magnetic Force: Evidence that Meaning in Life Promotes Interpersonal Appeal, Tyler F. Stillman et al., Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2010.

Origins of Purpose in Life: Refining our Understanding of a Life Well Lived, Todd B. Kashdan, Patrick McKnight, Psihologijske Teme, 2009.

Grab Bag:

Dustin Hoffman floating in a pool in The Graduate.

Andre Agassi’s speech at his induction to the Tennis Hall of Fame. 

TV interview with Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

TV interview with Dr. Viktor Frankl about finding meaning in difficult times.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. In all our lives, there are moments when the ground starts to shake beneath us, when our world becomes destabilized and everything changes. These moments can feel disorienting, upsetting, but they can also allow us to see things in new ways. Over the past year, all of us have had our own ground shaking moments. What can we do, all these months into the COVID-19 pandemic, to reframe our challenges, to use disruption as a source of re-invention? Every August, we bring you a series called You 2.0. It's about approaching the chaos of our lives with wisdom. Over the next month, we look at how to cultivate more empathy in our intimate relationships.

Eli Finkel: So, your spouse is late, your spouse does something inconsiderate. You have a lot of control over how that behavior affects you.

Shankar Vedantam: How to reinterpret the past by understanding the nature of memory.

Ayanna Thomas : The question is, which reconstructed memories are more accurate, and can you learn to monitor that process? And I think people can.

Shankar Vedantam: And how to grow from our mistakes.

Amy Summerville: Regret is actually a very hopeful emotion. It's something that is helping us learn from our mistakes and do better in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: Today, we begin our series with a simple but essential ingredient in life that we all crave.

Anthony Burrow: Purpose is an ancient concept. We, as a species, have been grappling with this concept forever.

Shankar Vedantam: How cultivating a sense of purpose can help us weather life's biggest storms, this week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Cornell University psychologist, Anthony Burrow, has spent much of his career studying what it means to have a sense of purpose. He has examined how we can cultivate purpose and how having a sense of purpose can transform our lives. Tony Burrow, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Anthony Burrow: Thank you for having me,

Shankar Vedantam: Tony. I want to play you a short clip from the 1967 movie, The Graduate, in this scene, a young Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock. He's fresh out of college lounging in his parents' pool when his dad confronts him.

William Daniels as Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock: Well, I would say that I'm just drifting here in the pool.

William Daniels as Mr. Braddock: Why?

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock: Well, it's very comfortable just to drift here.

William Daniels as Mr. Braddock: Have you thought about graduate school?

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock: No.

William Daniels as Mr. Braddock: Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock: You got me.

William Daniels as Mr. Braddock: Now, listen, Ben ...

Shankar Vedantam: Tony, do you ever come by people who sound like Ben, people who are just drifting through life?

Anthony Burrow: Frequently, I do. Certainly at some point in our lives, we all feel that way, that what we're ultimately doing is sort of drifting through life, although not everybody's in a pool when doing so.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking that some of these moments must come, especially during transitions in life, when young people are leaving college and going into the workplace or people are in the middle part of their careers, they're deciding whether they want a second career or whether they want to retire, or they're moving into retirement. I'm assuming that these moments might be more likely than others to bring out the sense of self doubt.

Anthony Burrow: Yeah, that's an interesting observation, in that, maybe feelings of languishing are actually not as random as they might seem. Particularly the examples you've given at transition points of having just graduated or having just retired, a lot of the identity contingencies, the ways in which we think ourselves, are interwoven into the everyday life experiences. So, the school relationships I have or the work relationships I have, when those things end, or come to an end, it might be that I started to wonder, well, who am I? What am I going to do today? And languishing isn't just a description of, sort of wallowing in a pool, a float in a pool, it is an attempt to describe a whole set of affective, emotional behavioral, circumstances, of simply not feeling engaged with one's life. There's a sort of a disconnection. So, you're sort of in this space, as I've experienced it, where you can't fully make sense of up or down, heads or tails because you're languishing. You can't keep score of how to move forward and get more of what you want, less of what you don't like. You're sort of in the winds, I think is a good way of describing it.

Shankar Vedantam: Emotionally, I mean, self-doubt is probably at one end of the spectrum. And at the other end of the spectrum, it can probably go as far as despair of really feeling like you don't know where you're headed and you don't know how to figure out how to get there.

Anthony Burrow: I agree. A truly unsettling situation would be to really not know what's next. You can imagine how unsettling that would be for people and confusing, especially when they're in contexts that are sort of demanding of them answers to the questions, "What are you going to do next?" And to not have an answer to that can be really off putting and unsettling.

Shankar Vedantam: You once ran an experiment where you asked people to report in the morning how purposeful they felt, and then report in the evening how purposeful the day had been. What did you find?

Anthony Burrow: That people were largely inaccurate. They tended to overestimate how purposeful they would feel that day. So, waking up in the morning, feeling like today's going to be a very purposeful day, but when you actually follow up with people at the end of the day, they actually weren't as purposeful as they thought they were going to be, which is not wholly unsurprising. Life happens. So, over the course of the day, you get busy with the tasks of everyday life. You go to work, you have conversations. And, by the end of the day, I didn't get to the things I really set out to do. But what it reveals is that it may actually be important to consider the subjective appraisal, that we may feel purposeful differentially across the day, and we may wake up with a lot of energy to go out and conquer the day. But over the course of the day, we may not get quite as near that ultimate potential as we thought. Life can get in the way of feeling as purposeful as we intended to.

Shankar Vedantam: You mentioned the idea of subjective experience a second ago, and I want to stay with that idea for a moment. Many people confuse a life that has meaning with one that has purpose. You say that meaning involves looking backwards and purpose involves looking forward. Can you explain the distinction between those two things?

Anthony Burrow: Sure. I certainly think these terms, meaning and purpose, can become sort of conceptually tethered in our minds. Meaning, it's sort of like making sense of the world as it's happened or is happening. Whereas purpose may not be as much about comprehending what's happened as it is about aspiring or intending to accomplish something that's ahead of you.

Shankar Vedantam: I feel like we live in a culture that talks a lot about goals. Getting into college, graduating from college, getting married, getting promoted. Talk a moment about the difference between having goals and having purpose.

Anthony Burrow: Goals might be thought of as intentions that can be accomplished. Whereas, we tend to think about purpose as an intentionality or life aim, meaning it is always in front of you. For example, a goal of graduating, I can accomplish that goal. I can set a goal of getting a job, but a purpose might be something like being a caring father. I can perhaps evidence it on a given day when I'm at my best, but it's hard to imagine accomplishing that being fully done with the task of that. So, a purpose might be an organizer of our goals, such that when I accomplish goals, it's my purpose that tells me, what are the goals that I should be pursuing next?

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking about the story of Andre Agassi, the tennis player. In his autobiography, he writes at one point that even though he was a world champion, he was desperately unhappy. In a 2017 article in The Guardian, he says, "Despite being good at it, I had a deep resentment and even hatred of tennis. I felt nothing. Every day is Groundhog day, and what's the point?" To me, that's so poignant, that someone who is literally at the top of their game can feel like they are drifting just as much as Benjamin Braddock in that swimming pool.

Anthony Burrow: Yes, that's a fascinating insight, because it's a very profound goal to strive to be number one and to be successful and have as much talent as it would take to be number one in the world in anything that you're doing. Perhaps, as you're enroute to number one, there's always this intentionality, there's always a higher seed that you can move forward to. But what happens when you've accomplished it? The game changes. Now it's the story of holding on to that, of maintenance. So, I think that's a wonderful illustration of what can happen when we conflate a goal with a purpose is: if a goal can be accomplished, it does raise questions about what becomes of you once you've accomplished it? Purpose is not synonymous with what the world sees in front of you. It is entirely internally driven. The answer to the question, " What is your purpose?", Is not something you can crowdsource, it's not something that you can turn to others and say, "Hey, tell me from your profile view, which direction does it look like I'm heading in?" It's an internal quest. Not until you realize that, you begin to ask yourself the questions: "Who are you? What direction are you heading in? What is your purpose?", would it really show up and become salient or actionable to you.

Shankar Vedantam: I feel like poets and philosophers have talked about this idea for a long time. I love what you just said, that in many ways, purpose is not about what it looks like on the outside from your profile picture on Instagram. It really is what's happening on the inside.

Anthony Burrow: That's right. I think that actually is poignant because there are many examples of people who, from the outside, look one way, look completely self-directed and clear about what they're doing. But when you ask them what direction they're heading in, they may report symptoms of languishing.

Shankar Vedantam: A lack of purpose can affect us at many different stages of our lives. Young people, like the fictional Benjamin Braddock, might experience it as confusion and uncertainty. Working age adults might experience it as ennui, unending, drudgery and tedious routines. Among older Americans, a lack of purpose may be linked to isolation and loneliness. Purpose, in other words, is essential to our well-being. It buffers us against the challenges we will all confront at various stages of our lives. It provides a measure of stability in uncertain times. The good news is that purpose is also something we can cultivate. That's when we come back, you're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. If you had to choose between a million dollars and having a sense of purpose, you might choose the money. At Cornell University, psychologist Anthony Burrow, might argue, you are making a mistake. Tony, I want to take nothing away from the benefits of having a great job or having money or a roof over your head. Those things are really important, especially if you don't have them, but can you talk a moment about what purpose can give us that money and material comforts cannot.

Anthony Burrow: First and foremost, a sense of purpose could give you a basis on which to decide, given the finite resources we have of money, of time, of energy, how should we best allocate them to allow us to move forward? So, money helps us purchase life's experiences. Which experiences should we purchase is fundamentally a different question, and having a sense of purpose could clarify that for us.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you a clip from the movie Lost in Translation. A younger woman is asking an older man about how to navigate some of life's challenges, and I want to play you a little exchange that they have.

Scarlett Johansson playing Charlotte: Does it get easier?

Bill Murray playing Bob Harris: No. Yes. It gets easier.

Scarlett Johansson playing Charlotte: Oh yeah. Look at you.

Bill Murray playing Bob Harris: Thanks. The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you'll let things upset you.

Shankar Vedantam: The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you're going to let things upset you. Can you talk about the role of purpose as a mood regulator, Tony.

Anthony Burrow: There seems to be accumulating evidence that one of the benefits of feeling a sense of purpose is that it can help us remain even keel in moments of stress or challenge, and sometimes even uplifting experiences. We've done studies where we ask people to report challenges or difficult experiences in the unfolding context of their everyday lives. As you might expect, on days in which people tend to report stressors, they also tend to report increases in distress. They tend to feel worse on days when they're reporting more stressors. However, purposeful individuals, or those that tend to score higher than their peers on measures of purpose in life, their stressful days kind of look like non-stressful days for the rest of us. In other words, it's almost as if it's helping them navigate or smooth the course for them. Now, I should say, it is not the case that purposeful people experience any less stress or challenge in their lives. In fact, in our studies, sometimes purposeful people report more day-to-day stressors than their peers who report lower levels of purpose in life. But on days in which people tend to report stressors, having a sense of purpose seems to buffer or mitigate the ill intended consequences of stressors.

Shankar Vedantam: It's almost as if having purpose allows you to keep your eyes on the horizon, if you will, so that the day-to-day challenges that are both the good and bad tend to knock you off course a little less, because in some ways, your eyes are focused on the future.

Anthony Burrow: That's correct. What's remarkable about this growing set of studies is it seems to be evident both in the context of stressors and in the context of positive events, or uplifts. On days when good things happen, as you'd expect, people tend to report increases in things like positive affect, life satisfaction or self-esteem, but individuals who score high in measures of purpose in life, on those days when good things happen, they tend to look emotionally even keel. It's almost as if that good thing didn't happen. I'll just say, although that may be jarring at first, it's like purpose almost blocks you from reaping the benefits of a good thing, over time, you would not want your emotional tone to be bouncing around based upon the experiences that are happening to you. Over the course of one's lifespan, it might be beneficial to remain even keel or as close as possible to life's experiences, and feel good irrespective of what's happening around you.

Shankar Vedantam: You once asked volunteers in an experiment to climb a steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, some were asked to write about a movie and others were asked to write about something that gave them a sense of purpose. Can you tell us what you found once the volunteers got to the top of the hill?

Anthony Burrow: In this particular experiment, after writing about, either the movie that they had seen or their sense of purpose, individuals traversed a steep incline, and as they arrived at the top, we asked them to report, how steep was this hill and how much effort did it take them to get to the top? Now, for those individuals who had written about the most recent movie they had seen, there was a pretty clear, positive correlation, or a strong relationship between how steep they thought that hill was and how much effort they thought it took to get to the top. Whereas, individuals who had written about purpose briefly before traversing this incline, when they got to the top, they showed less of a relationship between the estimated incline of the hill and how much effort they said it took to get to the top. One thing I should say, because I think it's relevant to the conversation is, we also had another condition in this study in which we asked people to write about their goals, that they intended to accomplish once they got to the top of the hill. To study with a friend, to meet somebody for lunch, to go home, whatever they might say that they were going to do once they got to the top of the hill. Those individuals who wrote about a goal, they actually did not show the same relationship between estimated incline and reported effort as the purpose writing condition. I think the insight to be drawn here is goals can become obstacles to the thing you most want to do. If you get me to think about my goal, well then, this hill is the effort, this is the obstacle between me and where I'm going to be in a few minutes when I get to the top. Whereas a sense of purpose seemed to decouple those things in a way, because I'm not thinking about what I'm going to do immediately at the top. I'm thinking about my general direction in life.

Shankar Vedantam: I also understand there has been research that suggests that people who have a sense of purpose appear more attractive to others. Is that possibly true?

Anthony Burrow: There does seem to be some suggestive evidence that individuals who report a stronger sense of purpose in life have a kind of interpersonal appeal. This is the work of Tyler Stillman and his colleagues. They have shown that our sort of judgments of attractiveness of people seem to have this sort of latent relationship with how strongly of a sense of purpose an individual might feel. It's not really, I don't think a story of just physical attractiveness, but a story of just likability and wanting to be around a person and wanting to be friends with them. Their data suggests that people who score highly on measures of purpose tend to enjoy this benefit of the world around them. It's almost as if we can see that this person is heading somewhere, there's something about them and they have a directionality to them.

Shankar Vedantam: As I was reading Tyler Stillman's study, I remember the poem that I had read some years ago, this is by W. H. Auden, where he talks about the very same idea. He says, "You need not see what someone is doing to know if it is his vocation. You have only to watch his eyes, a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon making a primary incision, a clerk completing a bill of lading, wear the same wrapped expression for getting themselves in a function, how beautiful it is that eye on the object look." I'm wondering, Tony, when you listen to that poem, is this speaking to what you said a second ago? That in some ways there's something, it's not sort of attractive and sort of a physical attractive in a sense, but it's something that draws us to people who seem to be truly engaged in what they're doing.

Anthony Burrow: First, I think the poem is beautiful. Interestingly, there is suggestive evidence that people who score highly on measures of felt-purpose tend to have broader and deeper social networks. So, it's as if there may be something they're up to that requires them to be in connection with broader circles of community, but it could also just as easily be the case that, when you're pursuing something that is meaningful to you, there's an attractiveness to that, that people find you because you're headed in a direction. Maybe it goes back to this languishing point: if a person is not directed, if a person does not feel a sense of purpose and starts to pursue a particular aim, it may be more difficult for the world around you to know just how to connect to you. But it seems like if you're directed, you're heading in a direction, perhaps there's an energy around that, that is attractive and perceptible by others.

Shankar Vedantam: Tony and his colleagues measure whether people have a sense of purpose by asking some remarkably simple questions. You can ask yourself these questions. In fact, you can ask yourself these questions right now. Do you feel your life has a clear direction? Do you feel your daily activities are engaging, important? This leads us to a crucial idea. A sense of purpose is not an objective truth, but a subjective experience.

Anthony Burrow: My colleagues and I tend to think about purpose as a sense, a perceptible sense that life has a sense of direction. So, it's simply feeling like your life has purpose, which seems to be a strong predictor of health and well-being.

Shankar Vedantam: Let's talk about the idea of health and well-being for a moment. What does the research say about the connections between having a sense of purpose and health outcomes?

Anthony Burrow: One of the most compelling findings I could think to share is that, having a sense of purpose in life predicts longevity. But beyond longevity, there's a whole constellation of studies to suggest purpose is associated with a whole host of physical and physiological health outcomes. For example, purposeful individuals report lower incidents of heart attack or stroke, purposeful individuals recover faster from certain kinds of surgery, purposeful people report feeling less psychosomatic symptoms, so headaches and stomach aches in the context of their everyday lives. So, the health profile of purpose seems to be, especially positive.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand there are also cognitive benefits that come with a sense of purpose?

Anthony Burrow: Sure. There's also suggestive evidence that individuals with a sense of purpose show slower rates of cognitive decline over the course of aging and lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease as well. So, there's indeed suggestive evidence that purpose is associated with, again, a host of cognitive benefits.

Shankar Vedantam: We spoke at the beginning of the segment about a thought experiment where I was giving you the choice between having a million dollars and having a sense of purpose. In reality, though, you and others have found that having a sense of purpose is not often at odds with financial success, and in some ways, the two things might be correlated. Can you talk about that work?

Anthony Burrow: Sure. In the context of our lab, we've noted having a sense of purpose in life is associated with greater self-reported income and greater net worth. I want to speak to this in relationship to another study because I think there's an important relationship here. Having a sense of purpose is also associated with lower levels of impulsivity. So, in a study where individuals were given a chance to take right now, a small monetary reward, they tended to opt for a larger downstream reward. The notion that having a sense of purpose in life is implicated in lower levels of impulsivity, I think illuminates the long game that purposeful individuals might be playing. They're thinking about, not the here and now, but about saving, about generating more for later.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if you can talk a moment about purpose, not at an individual level, and this might be difficult to do because it's harder to run experiments at a societal level, but it seems to me that there are times in the lives of different societies when societies feel like they have purpose and when societies feel like they are adrift. Can you talk about this idea of purpose as a driver of change, especially at the large level, the societal level?

Anthony Burrow: I have to confess, we tend to measure purpose as this individual asset, this individual resource that a person could cultivate, but what does that look like in a collective sense? I can say, I notice, even in political rhetoric, when candidates call on our collective sense of purpose, it is a reminder that even as an individual, we belong to something larger than ourselves.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I just want to do God's will, and he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

Anthony Burrow: In his articulation of "A Dream," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., invited us to imagine a world that was not yet present. I think that's a profound, yet again, a profound insight into a distinction between a goal that we can accomplish and a purpose that long after us, we can still be intending to move towards. The aspirational tone is so vivid, even in his reminder that he may not arrive there with us, but it was still worth the effort. It was still worth the pursuit, and reminding us that we are empowered to carry this forward.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you a clip from the late Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of the best-selling book, Man's Search for Meaning. Here he is in an interview.

Viktor Frankl: The lesson one could learn in Auschwitz and in other concentration camps in the final analysis was: Those who were oriented toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future were most likely to survive. And this has been confirmed afterwards by American Navy and army psychiatrists in Japanese prison of war camps, the orientation towards a future, towards a task, a personal task waiting for them to be fulfilled in their future or another person whom they were loving to be met again, this was what was decisively upheld in these people. The orientation beyond oneself, you see the question was not just survival, but there had to be a why of survival.

Shankar Vedantam: Tony, talk about this for a moment, because this is such an important and powerful idea, that even in the horrors of the concentration camp, the question was not just survival, as Viktor Frankl says, but there had to be a “Why?” in order to have survival.

Anthony Burrow: It is the most eloquent putting of the question, do you have a reason for living? I guess the better way of saying this is, there can be a physical death, and Viktor Frankl was very keenly aware of that, but before that, there can be a psychological death where a person sees nothing else out ahead of themselves. I think what he's speaking to is the profound necessity of feeling like there is something out in front of you. There is something that you have yet to accomplish that you can move towards as a way of surviving, of psychologically surviving and persisting. Purpose is an ancient concept. We, as a species, have been grappling with this concept forever. But I think Viktor Frankl's contribution is that we can take seriously the psychological enterprise of purpose as a deep and profound resource that is worth taking our time to cultivate the sense so that we see ourselves persisting in time and ultimately contributing to the world that is before us.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, it's one thing to say that purpose is really important, but if you don't have it, how do you find it? Is purpose something to be discovered or can it be developed, honed, and cultivated? You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Having a sense of purpose is like a secret superpower. Psychologist Anthony Burrow argues it can improve your health, your cognitive abilities, your longevity. It can even make you appear more attractive. We've talked about the tennis player, Andre Agassi, and how, even though he was very successful, he came to hate tennis. But that's not the end of Agassi's story. When he realized his life felt empty, Andre Agassi decided to approach tennis differently. He realized people were coming to watch him play, that he was giving others joy. He started to see himself as a role model here. Here he is describing that journey of taking ownership over his choices.

Andre Agassi: Ownership meant feeling grateful for being and having the chance to start over. Climbing out of that hole that I had dug from myself, that's when I started choosing to believe that each of us have a plan for our life, a purpose to fulfill, a body of work to create, a reason to be.

Shankar Vedantam: Tony, you seem to have had the remarkable, good fortune of having a sense of direction through much of your life. I want to talk about some things you've experienced growing up that may have helped you on this journey. You were adopted as a child, you're black, your parents are white. You could very easily have come to see yourself as a fish out of water. But early on, you encountered a program called 4-H. Tell me where you grew up, and for the many Hidden Brain listeners who are not in the United States, what is the 4-H program and how did it touch your life?

Anthony Burrow: 4-H is a national youth development program that has been in existence for over 115 years. And when I was a child, I participated in a 4-H program. I was living in Iowa, Northeast Iowa, in Bremer County, so shout out to the Bremer County 4-H program that I was a part of. My 4-H program was heavily centered on agricultural development, and it gave the young people that were involved in this program a chance to learn agricultural skills, how to grow crops, how to take care of animals, that kind of thing. I never thought about being in 4-H as participating in really a program. It was just kind of the cool thing to do. I didn't remember joining anything or signing up. It was just all of my friends and the parents of my friends were involved with 4-H. It was a way in which we were socialized into the work that we did from day-to-day.

Shankar Vedantam: Help me understand how a program that taught you how to farm, how to raise animals, how does that help you become a psychologist at Cornell University? I don't see the path.

Anthony Burrow: That's a wonderful question. Within the context of 4-H, we had just a tremendous number of opportunities to practice different things. One of the things we were invited to practice was public speaking. We had to present lessons we were learning to other 4-H members in different venues. Sometimes it was our closest friends and families. Other times it was strangers at county fairs or state fairs. But over the years, I had a chance to present on how to notch pigs ears, and the different ways of doing that. I had a chance to present on how to tie different kinds of knots. One particular time, I had a chance to present on how to grow certain crops in different soil types. Over the years of public speaking and presenting, I think I actually got good at it. I remember, in one particular moment of presenting on how to grow certain crops, and the judges paying attention to my presentation, taking notes of my style and the delivery and the different things I was saying about the soil. But I also remember the audience, there were people who were not actually judging me, but there to learn about different crop types and soil types, and that to be eight or nine-years-old, presenting to an audience of adults, teaching adults about the thing that I knew about was a profound experience. I had a little jar where I was showing different layers of the soil. I remember going away and coming back and seeing the judges had placed a red ribbon around my presentation, which essentially translated to second place. I've always been pretty salty about that day that I got second place on a presentation, but it stuck with me, that I realized I had something to say. The way I went about saying it mattered because people might understand the world they're living in differently as a function of what I'm saying, and I could get better. There was room for improvement, but that was a profound experience for me as a young person.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things that jumped out at me at what you just said was that you discovered that you had something to say, and part of it was actually discovering a little bit of who you were and what kind of a person you were. Can you talk about this connection between programs that, in some ways, help people discover who they are, discover a sense of identity, and the really vital connection between a sense of identity and having a sense of purpose?

Anthony Burrow: Right. It turns out after all, that 4-H is in fact, a youth development program. A well-intended program of scaffolded experiences. What's really neat about this is that there's a growing chorus of studies to suggest certain features of youth programs have the ability to invite young people to cultivate a sense of who they are and where they're going. I would nominate 4-H as one that does this quite well. Specifically, opportunities that told me I can learn something about the world that the world doesn't yet know or I can learn something about the world that some people in the world don't yet know, and I can share that information with them. That was a really important experience for me as a young person. I think from there, questions of who we are, or questions of identity are really important, especially in formative years of figuring out, who am I? What role can I play? Once we've grappled with questions of who we are, we might begin to wonder where, who am I going to be? What direction am I heading in? I think there, we see that the link between identity and purpose is really important. Because if we were to ask somebody, well, what is your purpose? Well, the you, or the your in that sentence requires that they know who they are. We might start to think of identity as sort of a foundational layer of self understanding, that when you are equipped with a sense of identity, you might stand a chance at figuring out and cultivating your sense of purpose.

Shankar Vedantam: You sometimes chafe at the suggestion that people should find their purpose or discover their purpose. You would prefer that people think about purpose as something to be cultivated. I can't help, but of course see the farming metaphor there, of sort of cultivation at work, but can you talk about that idea that purpose might not be something that's lying in the ground for us to pick up, but something that really might require our engagement with the soil, if you will, to cultivate?

Anthony Burrow: Yeah. That's right. I suspect you can leave 4-H but 4-H will never really leave you because I do think of it in those terms. You know, there's a kind of broad understanding, and even prescription, that you can find purpose. In fact, you should go out into the world and find purpose. I just don't see the evidence behind the idea that purpose can be found. I do understand why we might arrive at an understanding, that I can go out into the world and find this thing. If I just had the right flashlight, if you tell me where to look, but I don't think that's actually how it works. Purpose acquisition seems to arrive off of at least one of three pathways. Purpose might be born out of a gradual sustained attempt to engage with some topic or opportunity, kind of like a hobby. Whenever I have downtime, I find myself pursuing something over and over. Over time, I start to think, hey, is this a pathway that I'm on? Is this my purpose? Whenever I have time, I keep going back to the same thing, sort of arrive at purpose by gradual exploration and cultivation. Or, we might arrive at it through reactive pathways. Something happened in life. Someone in my family fell ill. It need not be negative, but in instances like that, purpose may sort of call me into it. You might think this thing happened, and now I know exactly the direction of my life. What's interesting about those two pathways, proactive and reactive, is those individuals may feel equally purposeful, but one has clarity about where it came from, the reactive pathway. They know exactly where that was from. Whereas the proactive pathway might fail to recognize when that really began. It was like a snowball I kept pushing over time. A third pathway might be the social learning pathway. There are some individuals who feel a profound sense of purpose in life, but they nominate learning about that purpose from other people. So, they watched somebody in their environment cultivate their sense of purpose. Now, it may not be the case that you feel the same sense that they feel, but it might suggest that you've seen what it looks like up close. You saw what it looks like to wake up in the morning and to really go after it.

Shankar Vedantam: To recap, Tony and other researchers have identified three different pathways to purpose. In the first, purpose comes to us gradually as we pursue a passion or a hobby. It can become bigger and gain momentum like a snowball, rolling down a hill. Another pathway comes in response to a major life event, a family member gets sick and needs our help. We lose a job and have to reinvent ourselves. The third pathway is to observe someone else who has purpose and to draw inspiration from their example. In his own life, Tony has cultivated purpose by linking his childhood experiences with what he does as an adult.

Anthony Burrow: I have this wonderful opportunity to serve as a professor. I get to teach people about psychology and human development. Every spring I teach a large adolescence class. I walk in and there's 300 faces looking at me. It's super intimidating. Every day, before I've lectured, for the past 10 years, I have a moment in the hallway before I walk into my classroom, and I really do think about all of the experiences I've had presenting information to people, that harken back to my 4-H days in Bremer County, Iowa. It wasn't my purpose when presenting about soil, which I got that red ribbon by the way, because I called it dirt and not soil. That's my lessons learned. It wasn't my purpose to end up as a professor, but I did have a sense of directionality and I did have a sense that the lessons I was learning, and the experiences I was having and collecting over time would bode well for me in the end. And so far, that's been true.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things you said a second ago about these three pathways to purpose, you're pursuing a hobby and eventually you realize this might be something you want to do, or you're reacting to something that happens in your life, or you have a role model who has a sense of purpose, and in some ways, you're, almost through osmosis, you're basically acquiring a feeling of what it's like to be animated by a sense of purpose. What strikes me about all those three pathways is that they do not involve someone sitting down on a couch and ruminating about what their purpose is. It's not sort of a mental process that basically asks the question over and over to yourself, what should I be doing? What is my purpose? It's actually much more active. It's actually engaged with the world. I'm wondering if you can tell me about a project that you're involved in called GripTape that is also similarly engaged with, not just thinking about the development of purpose, but how you actually go about it. You work with youth and ask them what they actually want to do, and in some ways, put scaffolding under them. Tell me about GripTape and its connections with what you have learned about purpose.

Anthony Burrow: GripTape is a wonderful program for young people to guide their own learning. The GripTape experience begins by asking young people, what is it that you want to learn? This can range from things like building bicycles, it can be, I want to learn how to code, I want to start a business. It doesn't matter the content. For 10 weeks, they engage in a learning challenge, in which they go out into the world and gain the information that they need in the spirit of what they want to learn. Now, a couple of features about this is, when you are selected into the GripTape program is, you're given a champion, an adult champion who's going to learn along with you. The beauty of the program is these champions can not have an expertise in the thing that the young person wants to learn. We typically think of mentors and champions as people who do have an expertise, but that severely restricts the number of people who can serve as a champion by not having expertise. GripTape, what they've done, is invited young people to learn with a captive audience. There's an adult who checks in with them routinely and asked, "Well, what did we learn this week? What did you do?" And you're sharing that information out. A group of collaborators and I are partnering with the GripTape program to study this process. How does directing your own learning help young people cultivate a sense of purpose in life, curiosity, contribution, and wellbeing?

Shankar Vedantam: The GripTape program challenges the idea that seeking purpose is only for the wealthy and well-connected, for students at Ivy League schools. It suggests that cultivating a sense of purpose is even more important for people who lack opportunities. Tony is a fan of the rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and his song, Good kid. It's about growing up in tough circumstances and finding your options are limited.

Anthony Burrow: Yeah, I'm a huge Kendrick Lamar fan, so shout out to Kendrick, and this song is brilliant. It's an invitation to consider what it's like to be a young person growing up in a space where the options to cultivate your purpose are especially limited. And what real choices does that allow this young person? When people like me are hanging around and saying, "Hey, let's cultivate purpose," well, we have to be mindful that some individuals are living in spaces or find themselves in spaces where the opportunities to really think through the menu of possible selves may be quite constrained. I think it's just a keen reminder that we all are implicated in everybody else's environment. We all play a role in other people's purpose development.

Shankar Vedantam: Tony also cites the astronaut, Mae Jemison. In a speech at The University of Virginia, Mae Jemison talked about why humans dream about the stars even when their own lives are besieged by everyday problems. In this clip, she cited a question posed to a scientist who was helping to build a telescope in South Africa.

Mae Jemison: That people asked him, why would South Africa do that when it has issues and problems in poverty? He said, because people have dreams, and dreams don't all revolve around just food. He said, even a person sleeping on a floor in a mud hut without a blanket dreams of things bigger than they are, and that our dreams are our hopes. That's where we move.

Anthony Burrow: Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space is a very inspirational person. And her aspiration, her purpose is to travel to the nearest star and to really consider what it would take to do that, to say, "What kinds of technologies should we get busy building? What kinds of activities, self understandings are needed for us to build the kinds of technologies, the kinds of societies, the kinds of working group relationships that would allow us to successfully make this journey?" We don't currently have the kinds of propulsion technology to get there, not in one piece at least. But when you sit with her ideas, you realize that it's sort of a trick. It's really getting us to think about ourselves and what we need to do to work through our current challenges. But the genius of that articulated purpose is that it really invites us to think about all the things we need to do as individuals, as collective, as communities, from the arts to the sciences, to survive that trip. So, it's a profound metaphor for purpose. It's sort of playing a trick on us to look inward. By talking about the nearest star and the journey that we should be preparing for, it's what we would do in the here and now that may be the most important part of that.

Shankar Vedantam: Anthony Burrow is a psychologist at Cornell University, along with Patrick Hale, he's the editor of the book, "The Ecology of Purposeful Living Across the Lifespan." Tony, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Anthony Burrow: Thank you so much for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I am Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Lily Percy. Lily is the former executive producer of the podcast and radio show "On Being". Since we launched our production company, Lily has given us advice on a broad range of operational and policy issues.

Shankar Vedantam: We're so grateful for generosity and sharing her time and wisdom. If you liked this episode, please think of a few friends who might like it too. Tell them about this episode and tell them about our show. If you are new to podcasting, show them how to follow us, or tell them to ask their smart speaker to "Play Hidden Brain." Next week in our You 2.0 series, we look at moments when emotions overwhelm us and we become strangers to ourselves.

Teaser tape (woman’s voice): I was telling my friend about this, and I'm like, "I don't know that girl." Like, "I don't know her."

Shankar Vedantam: I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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