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Values Forged in College Predict Adult Well-Being

New research finds a sense of purpose developed during college years sticks with you and helps shape adult behavior.
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For most students, college isn’t just a chance to learn skills and obtain knowledge. It’s also a time of life when goals are set, priorities are established, and a vision of adulthood is shaped.

But does the sense of purpose we feel as we leave school really stick with us as the years go by? And does it influence the kind of adults we grow into?

Newly published research suggests the answers are yes and yes.

Writing in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, a research team led by University of Notre Dame psychologist Patrick Hill describes a two-part study comparing college-era goals with middle-adulthood attitudes. They conclude a college-age belief that the purpose of life involves helping others is the best predictor of later well-being.

Seventeen hundred seniors, members of the class of 1994 at a major Midwestern university, filled out a survey in which they rated the importance various life goals. Six of the goals were labeled prosocial, including “Participating in a community service program,” “Helping others who are in difficulty” and “Developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Three were financial in nature (“Being successful in a business of my own”), three were creative (“Becoming accomplished in one of the performing arts”) and three involved personal recognition (“Becoming an authority in my field”).

Thirteen years later, the researchers contacted as many of the former classmates as they could find; 416 agreed to participate in a detailed follow-up survey. They re-took the senior survey of purpose orientation, and completed a series of well-established tests designed to measure their psychological well-being and personal integrity.

The researchers found the things that gave the participants purpose in their senior year of college still did so at age 35; there was a “strong stability” in the two scores. What’s more, those who had found meaning in prosocial pursuits “demonstrated the most adaptive psychological profile.”

“It appears that it is most psychologically beneficial to adopt a prosocial orientation,” they write. “Prosocial scores were the only unique predictors of generativity (willingness to teach young people what you have learned), personal growth, purpose and integrity among middle adults.”

The researchers note that the study participants “came from a university that strongly promotes prosocial goals,” and thus presumably attracts students who are oriented toward helping others. A survey of graduates of, say, a music academy would likely have a stronger orientation toward creativity and perhaps a similar level of satisfaction from pursuing an artistic life.

Nevertheless, they argue this research has implications for college practices. The researchers suggest universities should consider providing students “with multiple opportunities to develop prosocial orientations” during this important developmental period. These could include “high-quality service-learning courses, [which] promote prosocial goals and have a positive influence on emerging adult development.”

In addition, “we suggest that collegiate officials should teach students that they can endorse prosocial goals without de-emphasizing their other life goals,” they add. “For example, professors can discuss the moral or ethical issues that students may encounter when following different career paths.”

At the very least, they should be aware that they’re not only imparting wisdom. Whether they realize it or not, they’re helping to shape lasting values.

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