Research Spotlight: Sense of Purpose

WashU researchers share findings about encouraging purposeful pursuits in and out of the classroom

In the CTL’s new guidebook for instructors, Promoting Student Well-Being in Learning Environments, purpose is highlighted as a key to well-being. One of the most meaningful and challenging journeys university students face is the discovery, pursuit, and commitment to their purpose in life and we encourage faculty to help students explore and connect with their purpose through their coursework.

College students who feel purposeful experience a wide range of social and psychological benefits. PhD student Gabrielle Pfund, working with Dr. Tim Bono and Dr. Patrick Hill in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, recently published a study that followed nearly 400 WashU students throughout their first semester (Pfund, Bono, & Hill, 2021). Pfund and colleagues found that when students had a greater sense of purpose, they felt more satisfied with new university friendships, home friendships, and relationships with their parents. Furthermore, purposeful college students also report greater subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and resilience to obstacles (Pfund & Lewis, 2020).

Dr. Hill’s lab explores three primary pathways in the search for purpose: experiencing life events, trying new things, and imitating or mirroring role models (Hill, Sumner, & Burrow, 2014). Pfund shared with us some of the recommendations from a recent article about how instructors can leverage these pathways to encourage purpose development in and out of the classroom (Pfund, Bono, & Hill, 2020):

  • Help students consider major events that may have shaped their goals through reflection activities and in-class discussions.
  • Encourage students to explore new avenues by taking different classes, requiring community engagement activities, and giving students choices to complete assignments on class topics of personal interest.
  • Show students why you chose your own path and discuss how you made this decision.
  • Talk about how having long-term goals can assist students to persist from one day to the next.

“Finding a purpose can place students in a vulnerable position, but opportunities abound for instructors to support them through this process,” Pfund explains. “We encourage instructors to consider how they can set up class assignments to encourage personally meaningful pursuits, and guide discussions around what it means to find a purpose in life, as well as how they found their own direction.”

By taking advantage of these recommendations, WashU can become a more meaningful and close-knit environment for students as they explore and commit to their goals for life.

Article by: Gabrielle Pfund, Megan Wilson, & Patrick Hill


This post is part of our ongoing series on Promoting Student Well-Being in Learning Environments, check out our News page for more posts in the series.


Hill, P. L., Sumner, R., & Burrow, A. L. (2014). Understanding the pathways to purpose: Examining personality and well-being correlates across adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9(3), 227-234.

Pfund, G. N., Bono, T. J., & Hill, P. L. (2021). Purpose as a predictor of satisfaction across relationship domains during the first semester of university. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 02654075211042613.

Pfund, G. N., Bono, T. J., & Hill, P. L. (2020). A higher goal during higher education: The power of purpose in life during university. Translational Issues in Psychological Science6(2), 97.

Pfund, G. N., & Lewis, N. A. (2020). Aging with purpose: developmental changes and benefits of purpose in life throughout the lifespan. In Personality and Healthy Aging in Adulthood (pp. 27-42). Springer, Cham.