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Planting the Seeds of Purpose

Josh Cobb, Head of School
Recently, I joined a group of sixth grade students, several of their parents, and a sixth grade teacher on a service trip to the Food Bank of the Rockies. The coordinator from the Food Bank assigned us each a role and explained how it related to the entire endeavor of packing as many boxes of food as possible in the time we were there. I was part of the box crew with two other students.
We opened boxes of food—beans, potatoes, pasta, tuna, and more—and placed them in the correct position for those loading the various items into a complete box for a family. We were also in charge of breaking down the boxes once they were empty and placing them in a large recycling bin. By the end of the four hours, we had packed 667 boxes with 10,071 pounds of food and 8,398 meals provided. 

When the coordinator announced our totals, we cheered and felt the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something good for someone else. This four-hour experience of giving, though admittedly a relatively small action, is an example of what Aristotle defined as eudaimonic happiness. Victor J. Strecher, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, explores Aristotle’s philosophy in his book Life on Purpose. As he explains, Aristotle determined that the primary object of life was happiness and distinguished two types, hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic was at its best self-enhancing and at its worst a self-centered obsession with pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Conversely, eudaimonic happiness relied on transcending the self for the benefit of others. It was this form of happiness that Aristotle believed was more fulfilling. Strecher also cites a 2013 research study by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson that agrees: “Those who attained hedonic aspirations, however, reported greater anxiety and physical symptoms of poor health, whereas those attaining eudaimonic aspirations reported greater life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive feelings.” Stretcher combines the philosophy of the ancient past and the scientific research of the present to illustrate the power of purpose and why it is essential to introduce that power to students.

Last spring, the seventh and eighth graders experienced a purpose summit led by the World Leadership School that introduced this concept of eudaimonic happiness with a simple question, “What are your gifts and how can you share them with the world?” The first part of the question could relate to hedonic happiness if we only focus on improving ourselves, but the second part of the question lends itself to self-transcendence through giving to others. It is this purposeful happiness that we want to cultivate in our students as it will propel us in our mission to foster intellectual and social-emotional growth so that students become engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders. 
At the beginning of the school year, I introduced three elements of our learning experience that have been core to Graland since its founding: live the questions, live your passions, and live on purpose. This final theme of purpose-driven learning and living has come into focus over the past four years and taken on more urgency as the world has faced challenges that demand strong character and leadership. In Life on Purpose, Strecher relies on the work of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, to demonstrate that those who have purpose can survive most hardships. As Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any how.” In contrast, those who lacked meaning were lost: “Woe to him who saw no sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on.”

Children and teenagers now are facing an uncertain “how” in a world defined by the pandemic, civil unrest, war, natural disasters, and other causes of suffering. They also have 24-hour access to information detailing the impact of these tragic situations. It is easy to understand how a feeling of meaninglessness can overcome them and darken their days. These outer events, as well as having the typical hardships of adolescence amplified by social media, have led to a mental health crisis in our youth, a crisis that adds urgency to fostering the fortitude that comes with purpose. As Strecher explains in his book, the work of purpose finding and then purposeful living is not a fast one. It begins with self-understanding and relies on a sense of personal agency as we answer the weighty questions, “What matters to me? What do we value?” 

This starting point might seem ambitious, mostly for educators working with three- to fourteen- year-olds, but it is possible to scaffold this journey to purpose, or as Strecher proposes, to give some of us a recipe. At Graland, over the past two years, the Character Task Force has created a recipe of sorts, “A Framework to Build Strong Character,” which could be seen as a pathway to purpose. Using five of the school’s Guiding Principles, the framework provides a focal point for each teacher to examine how they are cultivating specific character traits based on those values. As students develop curiosity, empathy, agency, responsibility, and adaptability, they will not only gain a perspective that helps them transcend themselves, but they will gain a groundedness that provides the resolve to face the challenges of growing up in our world today. 

Later in Life of Purpose, Strecher discusses Abraham Maslow’s study of “transcenders.” Initially, Maslow placed self-actualization at the apex of his hierarchy of needs, but later in his scholarly career, he began to caution against the potential self-centeredness of self-actualization. Like Aristotle, he proposed that humans should try to go beyond self-enhancement and strive for self-transcendence, ultimately discovering that these “transcenders” were better synthesizers, innovators, and discoverers. They had both strong intellect and character.

Our work at the Food Bank was a potential catalyst for that self-transcendent purpose, the type of catalyst that could occur anywhere along the “whole child” experience of Graland, in an arts elective, a science class, a field trip, and many other activities that could become a seed of purpose, which could blossom decades later into a life that is both fulfilled and meaningful. I can think of no greater gift that we could share as educators.

In addition to planting the seeds of purpose, my experience at the Food Bank reminded me of one other thing: while building strong character, we can build a strong community. Along that assembly line packing boxes full of food, all elements of our Graland community came together to model character and contribute to others. While we filled those boxes, we filled each other up with that simple act of compassion. As our school community lives and learns with curiosity, passion, and purpose and follows our guiding principles, I look forward to uniting in our mission, our overarching objective to foster strong intellect and character, so that our students become engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders. 
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.