Seeking meaning and purpose at Stanford

June 4, 2014, 6:37 a.m.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across…Meaning is something you build into your life.” This quote from John W. Gardner adorns the notebooks that the Haas Center recently gave out at a senior send-off event. But does Stanford teach us to build meaning? To what extent are students asking themselves questions like, “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What do I deeply believe in? Who am I?” Less than 12 months ago, I embarked on an honors thesis to study how Stanford students pursued questions of meaning and purpose.

I based my research off of a landmark longitudinal survey by Astin, Astin and Lindholm (2011), who studied how college affected students’ spiritual growth. They described the concept of “Spiritual Quest,” defined by Klaassen and McDonald (2002) as a form of existential engagement that emphasizes individual purpose and meaning-making in the world. Since many of us understand spirituality very differently, the relevant question was not whether ideas of meaning and purpose were necessarily spiritual, but whether they were relevant, and how. I interviewed a sample of convenience of 39 upperclassmen. Here are four main takeaways:


1. Process

Many respondents described going through a major life event that catalyzed their process of reflection on meaning and purpose. These events were more often negative than positive, including the death of a loved one. Other less dramatic experiences included being severely challenged academically or forced to choose a major. Often, participants experienced unusual adversity, which provoked them to consider the meaning of life and develop their life philosophies.

Participants often reported that after these catalytic events, they gained a deeper sense of surrender and faith in that the occurrences of the world are not and do not need to be in their immediate control and that things would turn out all right. They described mindset changes such as an increased emphasis on self-love and compassion for other people. While the process does not end, some participants reached places of stability where questions of meaning were no longer as pressing and stressful as before. There were also those to whom these questions had never been important.


2. Obstacles

Participants described the Stanford culture of busyness, pressure, stress, overachievement and materialism as the main impediment to their thinking about meaning and purpose. They referred to the powerful narratives of success that surrounded them, and pointed out that the demanding schedule of deadlines and commitments took time away from reflection, slowing down, or even thinking. Some respondents reported feeling pressure to do more and achieve more, not to consider the meaning and purpose of what they were doing, nor to ask themselves critically why they were doing what they were doing.


3. Supports

When I asked participants what supported them in thinking about meaning, they mostly spoke not of their advisors, faculty members or classes, but of their friends at Stanford. Friends who were supportive and who engaged in deep conversations with them were most helpful. This could backfire if one’s friends did not appreciate this kind of inquiry. Other resources included Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), student groups, study abroad, Design Your Life and the Office of Religious Life.


4. Gaps

Many participants wanted more opportunities to discuss such matters, such as secular “small groups,” stronger student communities in residences or a better-resourced spiritual community center. Because respondents conceived of ideas of meaning and purpose very differently, their suggestions for improvement also varied widely. For example, for a person whose sense of meaning is completely bound up in their job search, a more accessible Career Development Center would be helpful. Yet this desire is irrelevant to another person who wanted stronger adult mentors, having had a frustrating advising experience at Stanford.

The upshot is this: If you have thought critically about your education and sought meaningful experiences, you are not alone. The process may feel terrible, but give it time. Try talking to your friends. There are resources here that can help you. At the same time, we need a greater range of interventions designed at facilitating students’ spiritual growth that can help us consider what living well means to us individually – and why – amid the endless opportunity that we enjoy at Stanford.


Sharon Tan ’14


Sharon Tan ’14 is a symbolic systems major graduating with honors in education. Contact her at sharonxh “at”

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Summer Program

deadline EXTENDED TO april 28!