In 2011 the then President Ban Ki-moon commissioned a ‘World Happiness Report.' To construct such a report many factors predicted to have a causal relationship for happiness were measured. Amongst such traits were economic equity, life expectancy, the freedom to make choices, etc. a sense of purpose stood out as a most significant factor. It was found that people, who had a good sense of purpose, live longer, have better relationships, sleep better and had a more positive sense of wellbeing. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, best described the importance of having a purpose. He observed that those prisoners who had something meaningful to live for outlasted those who just gave up.
Modern research identifies having a purpose as being a significant indicator of both physical and psychological health. As Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin observes if the concept of purpose were not so vague or ephemeral it would be a top public health priority, but it remains an idea that is ‘unscientific.'
So what is ‘the purpose of life?’
As Ryff observes the concept of purpose is hard to define. The current, fallback position of logging on to the Internet to ‘Google' the answer for this question is of little help. Of course, there are thousands of sites with their ‘explanations’, the majority providing a particular brand of religion as the reason we exist. Other sites give their equally vague explanations, but the thing they all have in common is that it is something to live for, something that makes life worthwhile.
In historical times questions over the purpose of life were probably left to those comfortable enough to have the time to wonder. Most people were busy surviving however even in the most primitive cultures there is a consistent longing for the presence of an afterlife, an organization that gave purpose to the day-to-day struggle to survive.
If we go back to the fundamentals of human drives, our primary purpose, I believe is the need to survive and the need to reproduce. In a vast majority of the developed world, we have by-in-large come to the situation that these essentials are under control. I have argued in other places that this essential satisfaction of the primary drives has given rise to our tertiary needs; that is to understand our self and our place in the environment. I think that it is at this level our hazy graving of purpose is founded.
In these advantaged communities purpose is linked to the vague ‘pursuit of happiness’ and this quest takes two forms. The first is of a hedonic nature; that is choosing to behave in a way that leads to pleasure or the accumulation of ‘rewards' - things that make us feel good. The second way to create a drive is to behave in a way that is of service to others. This selflessness gives a purpose beyond our self and strengthens our connection with community.
Both approaches provide the sense of happiness but with the advent of new methods of investigating what happens at a genetic level, it has been shown that the second approach, the service to others initiates an increase in the levels of activity in the area of the ventral striatum, a part of the brain that is linked to our reward system. Further, this feeling of wellbeing has an impact on the limbic system and people giving of their time to others, soothes the fight or flight response to challenging threats. There is a drop in the levels of cortisol present in these people that are not replicated in those who pursue hedonic activities.
For the teacher, the challenge to make schoolwork purposeful is difficult enough for those children who come from a history of nurture and security. They have in their belief systems a past rich in positive memories, they have no reason to expect their future to be other than more of the same and so if we link this belief into the present lesson we will get engagement. These kids will be open to adaptation and adjustment to any new experience. If the lesson provides knowledge that better informs their understanding, they can modify their future goals.
However, our focus is on those children who have come from a background of neglect and abuse. They have a memory bank full of rejection, physical and psychological cruelty and a well-developed sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter 3rd July 2017). Any consideration of their future, like those of their healthy classmates, is more of the same but their ‘same' provides nothing to look forward to. As all teachers of these students appreciates they are quite understandably fatalistic of their plight and will see no hope presented in the lesson UNLESS we can change this sense of their self and nurture a purpose in them.
Like all efforts to help these kids there are no quick fixes, and we must be prepared to provide the time, the consistency and build a relationship of trust. On top of these fundamentals, we can offer projects that are designed to almost ensure successful completion with a small personal investment from the child. These damaged kids more than most can identify any false patronization, so they have to make an effort.
If possible identify something, they may value. It might be a football club, an interest in fast cars, fashion; it doesn't matter as long as the project you choose involves them investing some energy.
Taking a lesson from the strength of providing a service to others as a personal motivator, the teacher can fabricate situations that allow these kids to perform acts of kindness to others. Things like visiting a retirement village or a pre-school. In my experience, all but the most damaged of children thrive in these environments, and the contribution to the formation of a more 'positive' belief system is exceptional.
As stated at the outset, the definition of ‘purpose' is hard to pin down yet the importance is unquestionable. I contend that developing a definite sense of purpose in these damaged kids is a gift a teacher can give that will make a lifelong difference.