J Youth Adolescence (2017) 46:1200–1215DOI 10.1007/s10964-017-0642-3EMPIRICAL RESEARCHPurpose and Character Development in Early AdolescenceHeather Malin1 Indrawati Liauw1 William Damon1 Received: 27 January 2017 / Accepted: 28 January 2017 / Published online: 8 February 2017 Springer Science Business Media New York 2017Abstract Character development in adolescence is ofgrowing interest among psychology researchers and educators, yet there is little consensus about how charactershould be deﬁned and studied among developmental scientists. In particular, there is no fully developed frameworkfor investigating the developmental relationships amongdifferent character strengths. This study examines thedevelopmental relations between purpose and three otherkey character strengths that emerge during early adolescence: gratitude, compassion, and grit. We analyzed survey(n 1005, 50.1% female, 24.1% Caucasian, 43.6% AfricanAmerican, 18.9% Hispanic, 11.9% Asian American) andinterview (n 98) data from a longitudinal study of character development among middle school students from theUnited States. Data were collected over the course of 2years, with surveys conducted four times at 6-month intervals and interviews conducted twice at 12-month intervals.Data analyses showed small but signiﬁcant correlationsbetween purpose and each of the other three characterstrengths under investigation. Interview data revealed patterns in ways that adolescents acted on their purposefulaspirations; and interview analyses identiﬁed qualitativedifferences in expressions of gratitude and compassionbetween adolescents who were fully purposeful and thosewho were not. The ﬁndings suggest that character development can be better understood by investigating the multidirectional developmental relationships among differentcharacter strengths.* Heather Malinhmalin@stanford.edu1Stanford University, Stanford Center on Adolescence, 505 LasuenMall, Stanford, CA 94305, USAKeywords Character development Character strengthsAdolescence Purpose IntroductionThe study of human character has taken place across severalscholarly disciplines, and it has employed a wide variety ofconceptual frameworks and deﬁning terms. At the presenttime, there is a growing interest in character development inthe psychological sciences and education, but there is a lackof consensus about terminology that is used to deﬁne andanalyze elements of character. In this article, we introduce anew investigation into character development during itsformative phases at the beginning of adolescence. In orderto clarify our choice of terminology for this study, we startby setting the terms that we use in the context of someclassic analyses of character in philosophy and psychology.Philosophers have long written about the nature anddevelopmental origins of human character. For Aristotle, aperson’s character was the collection of “virtues” (or“strengths,” the Latin root for “virtues”) that give a person’sway of behaving in the world its identifying cast or “mold.”In this use, virtues are behavioral habits with positive valuesfor an individual’s personal and social adaptation. The termvirtues is synonymous with the term “character strengths,”which is the wording that we adopt for our use in the present investigation.Aristotle described good character as a state of harmonyamong feeling, thought, and action: good people act inaccord with rational thought and feel good when they do(Aristotle 1999). But this is an ideal state, rarely if everachieved in totality and approximated only by those whohave attained the most mature states of character
J Youth Adolescence (2017) 46:1200–1215development. For most people during most of development,character is far from unitary. Feelings, thoughts, and actionsrelated to virtues may be frequently misaligned; and thevirtues (or “character strengths”) themselves may develop atan uneven pace, with some maturing while others growslowly or not at all. Thus at every phase of development anindividual has a distinct proﬁle of virtues (“characterstrengths”), some of which may be more mature, stable, andfunctional than others.Individual and developmental variations in character areof great interest to psychologists and other social scientists,as well as educators and practitioners. A science of character requires examining the distinct elements that make upcharacter as it develops over time. Developmental scientistsseeking to understand how people develop character canbegin by recognizing the unity of thought, feeling, andbehavior as a desired developmental outcome, but tounderstand the developmental dynamics of character, thespeciﬁc components that make up individuals’ characterproﬁles at all periods of their lives must be examined inthemselves.“Positive” psychologists Peterson and Seligman (2004)set a course for observing and assessing speciﬁc components of character when they proposed a classiﬁcationmodel of twenty-four “character strengths” (the wording thatthey like us, chose). Their model treats character not as aunity but as a multiplicity composed of distinct characterstrengths that develop somewhat independently of oneanother. A person’s character, in this sense, is described bythe person’s most-developed strengths, called “signaturestrengths” in the Peterson/Seligman model.Since the Peterson/Seligman character model was introduced, there has been debate about the uniﬁed vs. pluralnature of character. Whereas Peterson and Seligman arguedthat people can ﬂourish by developing their unique “signature strengths” to the neglect of other strengths, othershave maintained that such an imbalanced development ofvirtues causes weak character and reduces well-being (Allen2015; Fowers 2008). These arguments suggest that, incontrast to the original Peterson/Seligman formulation,character strengths may interact in the formation of one’scharacter in ways that we do not fully understand.Peterson and Seligman’s character strengths classiﬁcationframework provides a starting point for a new science ofcharacter development. As we advance this science, themost pressing task is to ﬁgure out how to draw conceptualdistinctions between individual character strengths such thatany one may be assessed independently of others, and thedevelopmental trajectory of each can be traced. We shouldalso attend to the developmental relationship among thedifferent strengths, how they nudge each other as theydevelop, and how they interact at different stages ofdevelopment.1201To study how character strengths emerge and develop,both individually and in relation to each other during theformative early adolescent years, we have been workingwith collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania(Angela Duckworth. P.I.) in a longitudinal study of character development in early adolescence. For our lab atStanford, this study grew out of our interest in the characterstrength of purpose and its development. In our lab, wehave studied purpose, its developmental correlates andprecursors, the forms it takes at different periods of development, the domains of life where youth ﬁnd purpose, andthe factors that foster purpose as it develops in adolescenceand adulthood (see https://coa.stanford.edu/publications).With our engagement in the broader character developmentproject, we have had a chance to expand our study ofpurpose to include other character strengths, includinggratitude, grit, and compassion. Purpose overlaps inimportant ways with each of these other strengths, yet eachof the strengths has its own distinct functions in forming aperson’s character.In this article we examine the relationship between purpose and other character strengths during adolescence. Weﬁrst describe purpose, grit, gratitude, and compassion asthey have been framed by recent theory and research. Wethen use data from our collaborative character study toexamine purpose as it emerges in adolescence and how itcorrelates with the gratitude, compassion, and grit at thisperiod of life.Purpose as a Character Strength in AdolescencePurpose is a long-term, forward-looking intention toaccomplish aims that are meaningful to the self and ofconsequence to the world beyond the self. Purpose is arelatively new construct in developmental research, especially with respect to the study of character development: ithas been shown to be an indicator of thriving and optimaldevelopment (Bronk 2012), but until now purpose has notbeen described in terms of its role in a person’s character orstudied in relation to other character strengths.In Peterson and Seligman’s classiﬁcation of characterstrengths, purpose is subsumed under the strength oftranscendent spirituality. In this formulation, purpose isseen as a character strength because it provides a feeling ofconnectedness to something larger than the self. But webelieve that this is too limited a view of purpose, which formany people has secular rather than spiritual manifestations.In addition, as our work has shown, purpose is not limitedto feelings of transcendence and connectedness (Damon2008). Further, it has components similar to those of othercharacter strengths, including moral strengths such as gratitude and compassion, as well as strengths that support goalachievement, such as grit (Duckworth et al. 2007).
1202Deﬁning purposePurpose is a life aim, a goal that provides direction anddrives action. Finding and acting on a purpose gives lifemeaning, because (1) it connects the self with somethinglarger than the self, and (2) it is actively and consistentlypursued over a sustained period of time. We have deﬁnedpurpose as “a stable and generalizable intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self andcontributes to the world beyond the self” (Damon et al.2003, p. 121). When people ask the question “What is mypurpose in life?” they are seeking a guiding direction thatthey can pursue into their future, to their destiny.Purpose and moral characterPeople with purpose have developed stable values that arecentral to their sense of self, and they are driven by thosevalues to act on them. Importantly, purpose is a desire tocontribute to the world beyond the self, for example bystriving to improve the lives of others or create somethingthat has a beneﬁcial impact on the world. Purpose is acharacter strength because it is an aspiration to contributesomething beyond the self along with a commitment to acton that aspiration. People with purpose look to what theworld needs and how they can meet that need, connecting inmeaningful ways with something larger than the self, suchas family, the good of society, God, or justice.In adolescence, purpose provides an organizing frame forbehavior, goal-setting, and identity formation (Damon2008). Young people with full purpose have been shown tofollow through on long-term goals, engage in sociallyresponsible behavior, show agency in identifying and actingon issues that concern them, and have an impact in theworld. Purpose contributes to formation of a good characterbecause it motivates young people to be the best they canbe, not in a competitive sense, but in the sense of driving toalways better themselves so that they can make a meaningful contribution to the world.Purpose and well-beingPurpose contributes to an individual’s psychological wellbeing and ﬂourishing (e.g., Frankl 1959; Keyes et al. 2002).Well-being has been described by psychologists: as (1) asubjective feeling of happiness and enjoyment of life, and(2) the more meaningful process of “fulﬁlling one’s virtuouspotential and living as one was inherently intended to live,”(Deci and Ryan 2008, p. 2). Purpose is associated with thesecond form of well-being, called eudaimonia (Deci andRyan 2008; Ryff and Singer 2008), but is not stronglycorrelated with the ﬁrst form, which is also described ashedonism or happiness (Keyes et al. 2002). In numerousJ Youth Adolescence (2017) 46:1200–1215studies, sense of purpose has correlated with speciﬁcaspects of well-being such as life satisfaction, positiveaffect, and hopefulness (Burrow et al. 2010; Burrow et al.2014; Ryff and Keyes 1995), and has proven repeatedly tobe a core component of psychological well-being (Ryff andKeyes 1995). Purpose is also an indicator of thriving, whichis deﬁned as a developmental process that involves positiveand healthy relationships and contributions to society(Bundick et al. 2010; Lerner et al. 2002).Purpose in adolescence supports positive development ina number of areas. At school, having a purpose for learningsupports academic performance and self-regulation (Yeageret al. 2014). Young people with purposeful career goals ﬁndschoolwork engaging and meaningful, unlike those withoutpurpose (Yeager and Bundick 2009). Purpose promoteshealthy identity formation (Bronk 2011) and mediates therelationship between identity and well-being during adolescence (Burrow and Hill 2011). When young peopleshape their identities with strongly-held values and commitments to things larger than themselves, they can buildrobust identities and clear senses of direction as they construct their future lives (Damon 2008).Prevalence of purpose in adolescenceIn an interview study of 270 young people ages 11–21,about 25% were engaged in pursuing a purpose (Moran2009). Within this group, there were signiﬁcant developmental age differences. Among the oldest (college-aged)participants in the study, 42% had purpose, whereas only16% of the 11–12 year olds had purpose. Another 10% ofthe total adolescent sample had a potentially purposefulbeyond-the-self goal, but were not acting on it. About 40%of the total sample had no indicators of purpose, meaningthat they had no beyond-the-self goals or pressing concerns,and were not engaged in any exploratory beyond-the-selfactivity. Young people in this study found purpose indiverse domains, such as the arts, helping others, community service, invention and discovery, spirituality, andfamily (see also, for similar ﬁndings, Bronk 2012; Malin20character strengths. Keywords Character development Character strengths Adolescence Purpose Introduction The study of human character has taken place across several scholarly disciplines, and it has employed a wide variety of conceptual frameworks and deﬁning terms. At the present time, there is a growing interest in character development in