Happiness 2.0: Cultivating Your Purpose - Transcripts

February 20, 2023

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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 this favorite episode from 2021, Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow explains why purpose isn’t something to be found — it’s something we can develop from within.


As 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. Sometimes this untethered feeling comes after we lose a job or end a relationship. Sometimes it comes on us more gradually, with a slow realization that the life we've built isn't fulfilling us in the way we thought it would. These moments can feel disorienting, upsetting, but they can also allow us to see things in new ways. Today, we continue our Happiness 2.0 series with a look at something simple but essential

that we all need in our lives.

Purpose is an ancient concept we as a species have been grappling with this concept forever. How cultivating a sense of purpose can help us weather life's biggest storms this week on Hidden Brain. 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.

Thank you for having me.

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.

Ben, what are you doing? Well, I would say that I'm just drifting here in the pool.

Why? Well, it's very comfortable just to drift here. Have you thought about graduate school? No. Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work? You got me.

Now, listen, Ben. Tony, do you ever come by people who sound like Ben, people who are just drifting through

life? 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. I'm thinking that some of these moments must come especially during transitions in life, you know, when young people are leaving college and going into the workplace or people are in the middle part of their careers, they're deciding, you know, 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.

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. And 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 start 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's 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. And 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 wind, I think is a good way of describing it. And emotionally, 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. 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 context 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. 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?

The 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, right? And so over the course of the day, you get busy with the tasks of everyday life. You go to work, you have conversations, and oh, 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. 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? Sure, sure. I certainly think these terms, meaning and purpose, can become sort of conceptually tethered in our minds. Meaning is sort of like making sense of the world as it's happened or as happening. Whereas purpose may not be as much about comprehending what's happened as it is about aspiring or attending to accomplish something

that's ahead of you. 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. 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. So 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. And 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. 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? And 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. Yes, that's a fascinating insight, right? 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 and in anything that you're doing. And perhaps as you're en route 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 a story of holding on to that, of maintenance. And 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. And not until you realize that you begin to ask yourself the question, 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? You know, I feel like poets and philosophers have talked about this idea for a long time. And 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. That's right. And 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. 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 un-wee, 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.

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 Barrow 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? 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? And 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.

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. Does it get easier? No, yes, it gets easier. Oh, yeah. Look at you. The more you know who you are and what you want, the less things upset you.

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?

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. And 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.

So 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.

That's correct. And 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. So 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. And 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.

You once asked volunteers in an experiment to climb a steep hill. And 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? 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 the 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, cuz I think it's relevant to the conversation is we also had another condition in the 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 gonna do once they got to the top of the hill. and 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. And 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. I also understand there's been research that suggests that people who have a sense of purpose appear more attractive to others.

Is that possibly true? 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 judgements of attractiveness of people seem to have this sort of latent relationship with how strongly of a sense of purpose an individual might feel. And 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 or 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. You know, as I was reading Tyler Stillman's study, I remembered a 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, forgetting themselves in a function. How beautiful it is that I 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 attractiveness sense, but it's something that draws us to people

who seem to be truly engaged in what they're doing. First, I think the poem is beautiful. And 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. And 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 start 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 imperceptible by others. 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. 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 wellbeing. So let's talk about the idea of health and wellbeing for a moment. What does the research say about the connections

between having a sense of purpose and health outcomes? 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 incidence 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. I understand there are also cognitive benefits

that come with a sense of purpose? Sure. So 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. 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? 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. And I want to speak to this in relationship to another study, because I think there's an important relationship here, is 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. And 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. 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 to societal level?

You know, 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. I just want to do God's will, and He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get that with you, but I want you to know tonight

that we as a people will get to the promised land. In his articulation of a dream, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited us to imagine a world that was not yet present. And 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. I want to play you a clip from the late Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of the bestselling book, Man's Search for Meaning.

Here he is in an interview. 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 toward a future, toward 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. So this, the orientation beyond one's self, the, you see, the question was not just survival, but there had to be a why of survival.

Tony, talk about this 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. 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 Victor Franco 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. And 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 Victor Franco'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 this sense so that we see ourselves persisting in time

and ultimately contributing to the world that is before us. 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 Vedanta. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedanta. Having a sense of purpose is like a secret superpower. Psychologist Anthony Barro 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 he is describing that journey

of taking ownership over his choices. Ownership meant feeling grateful for being and having the chance to start over. Climbing out of that hole that I had dug for 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. Tony, you seem to have had the remarkable good fortune of having a sense of direction through much of your life. I wanna talk about some things you 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? 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. 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.

That's a wonderful question. Within the context of 4-H, we had just a tremendous number of opportunities to practice different things. And 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. And one particular time, I had a chance to present on how to grow certain crops in different soil types. And 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, you know, eight or nine years old, presenting to an audience of adults, teaching adults about the thing that I knew about was a profound experience.

And I had a little jar where I was showing different layers of the soil. And 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. And I've always been pretty salty about that day that I got a second place on my presentation. But it stuck with me that I realized I had something to say and 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. So one of the things that jumped out of me at what you just said was that you discovered that you had something to say, and part of who 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. Right. It turns out after all that 4-H is in fact a youth development program, a well-intended program of scaffolded experiences. And 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. And 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, right? Or I could learn something about the world that some people in the world don't yet know, and I can share that information with them. And that was a really important experience for me as a young person. And 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? And once we've grappled with questions of who we are, we might begin to wonder where, who am I gonna be? What direction am I heading in?

And 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. And so I think we think 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. So 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 it? Yeah, that's right. So I suspect you can leave 4-H, but 4-H will never really leave you because I do think of it in those terms, is, you know, there's a kind of broad understanding and even prescription that you can find purpose. And 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, and 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.

I 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, and 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, 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. So 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. I have this wonderful opportunity to serve as a professor. I get to teach people about psychology and human development. And every spring I teach a large adolescence class. I walk in and there's 300 faces looking at me. It's super intimidating. And 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. And 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 why 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. 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 Grip Tape 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 puts scaffolding under them. Tell me about Grip Tape and its connections with what you have learned about purpose.

Grip Tape is a wonderful program for young people to guide their own learning. The Grip Tape 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 wanna learn how to code, I wanna start a business, it doesn't matter the content. And 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 wanna learn. Now, a couple of features about this is when you are selected into the Grip Tape program is you're given a champion, an adult champion who's gonna learn along with you. And the beauty of the program is these champions cannot 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. Grip Tape, 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 asks, well, what did we learn this week? What did you do? And you're sharing that information out. And a group of collaborators and I are partnering with the Grip Tape 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? The Grip Tape 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.

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? So when people like me are hanging around saying, hey, let's cultivate purpose, right? 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.

This is your station, baby. All I see in this room, 20's, Annie's, and these strooms growing candy for pain. Can we live in the same society as the tide least?

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.

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.

So 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. And 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.

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. Thank you so much for having me. Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Annie Murphy-Paul, Laura Quirell, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Joanna Weber. Joanna is a marketing executive and longtime friend of the show. We recently had some questions about how to connect Hidden Brain to new audiences. Joanna hopped on a call with us while she was traveling and had great insights and advice.

Thanks, Joanna, for your support and for your friendship. In the next episode of our Happiness 2.0 series, we ask, which is better? Bursts of euphoria or less intense, but longer stretches of happiness.

You might think of it as like two flavors of ice cream. You know, experiences are like gelato with this intense burst of happiness, but then it's gone. And then on the flip side, you know, material things are more like a big thing of froyo, where they're not like as amazing in any one moment, but like you can have it for a while.

I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.