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Students’ life purpose profiles show self-orientation and need of support from education to expand them

Published on 24.4.2023
Tampere University
Henkilökuva Elina Kuusistosta, vihreällä taustalla
Photo: Jonne Renvall / Tampere University
Researcher Elina Kuusisto is interested in what purposes in life people have and how they affect the quality of their lives and society. Kuusisto has also studied the life purposes of students at Tampere University and Tampere University of Applied Sciences. Studies show that students’ life purposes often do not go beyond their self-interest and relate to their own well-being, not so much to the common good. Concerned about the results, Kuusisto is currently studying the role of education and how students can be supported in the future in expanding their purposes in life.

Together with her fellow researchers, Elina Kuusisto investigated the life purposes of Finnish and Dutch students in the study Life purposes: Comparing higher education students in four institutions in the Netherlands and Finland, which was published at the beginning of the year. One of the researcher colleagues at Tampere University is Inkeri Rissanen.

The study builds on the definition of the purpose in life proposed by William Damon of Stanford University and his research group. The definition of life purpose comprises three dimensions. Firstly, a personally meaningful intention, a goal to which one is committed on a long-term basis, secondly, engagement with planning and realisation so that the intention can be accomplished, and thirdly, a dimension beyond the self, concerning others. These three dimensions can be used to examine a person’s life purpose development.

Self-orientation is emphasised in students’ life purposes

The study of Kuusisto and partners examined the life purposes of higher education students. Based on quantitative data, the researchers identified four purpose profiles among Finnish and Dutch students: purposeful, self-oriented, dreamer, and disengaged. Studies conducted in the United States have also reported similar profiles.

A purposeful profile indicates all the dimension of Damon’s theory: students with this profile had found meaningful intentions, were engaged in pursuing them,  and also wanted to contribute to people beyond the self in some way. Self-oriented students were found to have meaningful aspirations to engage with themselves while they were not equally interested in contributing to the benefit of others. Dreamers expressed strong hopes to contribute to make the world a better place but lacked a clear sense of purpose and engagement. Disengaged were the smallest group. They scored low on all three dimensions.

The qualitative part of the study showed that the majority of Finnish students are self-oriented.

“Many Finnish and some Dutch students were among those who really are mainly pursuing goals only benefitting themselves. They aimed to be happy in life, actualise their own interests and to have a good home and family and a nice life for themselves. And who would not?” Kuusisto says with a smile.

Only a third of teacher students have societal goals

Based on the research results, Kuusisto has been conducting a further study with Rissanen. The study has been focusing on student teachers at Tampere University.

The results highlighted the instrumental importance of the future teachers’ work. This means that students experience happiness and meaning in life through their work. They also feel that the work provides them with a livelihood that enables them to achieve their purposes in life.

“Although students also have pedagogical purposes, it was surprising that only a third of them had societal goals or purposes. When we think that one of Tampere University’s key values is societal impact and the education of students to social responsibility, this should obviously also be one of the main objectives in our teacher education,” Kuusisto mentions.

She says that she is concerned about the results:

“We seem to have a teacher generation that goes to work to be happy or based on what the work will provide them. Teachers’ work is very challenging, and I am afraid that these kinds of goals and expectations will not hold up in everyday life if we go to study only through our own happiness perspective. Paradoxically, studies have shown that one becomes happy by serving others,” she points out.

Together, Kuusisto and Rissanen have thought that research results should be considered in the development of teacher education to help the future teachers to expand their life goals.

“I would like to emphasise that the students who participated in the study were at the beginning of their studies. So we need further research into how purposefulness develops during studies. At the moment, a new curriculum is being developed at the Faculty of Education and Culture, which hopefully enables students to develop their goal awareness early in their studies. This is a good start,” Kuusisto says.

Life purposes are evolving throughout life

Kuusisto says that she had a time in her life when she was afraid to dream. At that time, the life purposes and their related goals were not clear. The study of Damon’s theories changed her perspective:

“Today I constantly wonder how I can develop my life purpose. According to Damon, the life purpose is an evolving thing that deepens and forms throughout life. I plan and set goals actively, I want to practice what I study in my life. This theory has given me an important tool to help everyday life,” she mentions.

Next, to help teacher students, Kuusisto and Rissanen are going to examine how the students can work on their life purposes during teacher studies. The aim is for students to be able to expand their life purpose and to better understand it through the societal significance of teachers’ work.

“I hope that in the future we will have teachers who will have the motivation and the resources to influence structures and tackle difficult working conditions. The inclusion of the societal dimension in teacher education is important, but, as you can see from our research, we are just at the beginning. It is important that teachers see the importance of their work on a larger scale;” Kuusisto summarises.