How mentors can help youth build satisfying, fulfilling lives - Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring

Path Finders: How mentors can help youth build satisfying, fulfilling lives

“Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life” – Confucius

“It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us.” Malcom Gladwell

As these quotes imply, the path to a happy, fulfilling life has little to do with material goods. Happiness and positive psychology researchers like Martin Seligman have converged on the essential truth that a person’s happiness and fulfillment often stems from engaging in satisfying activities and the sense of connectedness to a greater whole that it provides. This implies that a young person’s well-being and life satisfaction can be dramatically enhanced through their involvement in activities that generate intense interest or even, what psychologist Csikzentmihalyi has described, “flow” experiences. Happiness researcher Christopher Peterson found associations between the three dimensions of authentic happiness (pleasure, engagement, and meaning) and traditional measures of life satisfaction, and vice versa.The secret to happiness is to “follow your bliss”, or to be more specific:

  1. Find something that really interests you, for which you have talent, and they you feel makes a difference in the world
  2. Commit serious time and effort to becoming really good at it
  3. Become fully engaged/absorbed in tackling ever more challenging goals around your interests/talents
Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls. — Joseph Campbell

If following your bliss is the path to a happy, fulfilling life, then an important first step for work with young people is to help them discover their interests and talents. Young people with actively involved parents, ample community resources, and access to interesting activities (music lessons, computer classes, museum trips, travel) have many opportunities in this regard. According to Alan Waterman, those everyday activities provide opportunities for discovering special talents and abilities and are thus are a primary source through which identity is formed.

But everyday life varies dramatically across social class and circumstances, such that the “pursuit of happiness,” does not appear to be equally distributed amongst today’s youth. Experiences that can pique interests take time and resources, including the support of parents and other caring adults. Yet the social fabric is stretched so thin that many youth simply don’t have the exposure. This is where mentors come in.

Mentors as muses

What a mentor does when he or she anoints you and says you have talent and this is what you should be doing with it, what that person does is he or she gives you direction, an identity and purpose and it’s a very profound experience and it doesn’t happen to everyone.

Author Elizabeth Benedict (editor of Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives).

Mentors can play a vitally important role in helping youth identify and pursue their interests and talents and in providing youth with the encouragement and confidence to persist through frustation and setbacks. These interests may be purely recreational, but the important skills of going deep into an interest can transfer to later career paths. To do so, it is important to step back and understand how interests develop.  Researchers generally define interests as a person’s “long-term relationship with a specific domain, characterized by positive feelings, higher values, and deeper knowledge that displays itself in the tendency to reengage voluntarily in interactions over time.”(Hofer, 2010, p. 152). Certain criteria are often included when determining whether a domain is of particular interest and calibrating that interest. These include the extent to which the interests are

  1. self-initiated
  2. meaningful (i.e., engendering feelings of social relatedness, competence, and pleasantness)
  3. challenging
  4. valued highly as a means of contributing to personal goals that contribute to an ideal or possible self

Markus and Nurius (1986) have referred to ideal or possible selves as a young person’s sense of “what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they fear becoming.” The concept of possible selves, is particularly relevant to understanding the development of interests because such visions are the motivational link between the present and imagined future and can act as force of self-regulation (steering behavior toward attainment of goals) (Hofer, 2010). Conceptualizing one’s possible self and, more generally, moving from exploring an interest to engaging in it depends, at least in part, on a young person’s self-awareness. This enables a youth to determine whether a particular interest area fits with their self image and to evaluate whether their experiences are characterized by the criteria described above (i.e., self-initiation, meaningful challenging, valued).

Of course, decisions to engage in  interest areas can’t be understood purely in terms of cognitive processes. As adolescents begin to think about themselves and others in more abstract, differentiated, and multidimensional terms, they naturally compare the image of those who prefer certain domains to the image they have of themselves. As they make this comparison, they might feel either a match or a mismatch (Hofer, 2010).

Likewise, adolescent thinking skills and areas of interest are affected by social connections.  Russian psychologist LevVygotsky described a “zone of proximal development” in which learning takes place: beyond what a young person can attain when problem solving independently but within the range of what he or she can do while working under adult guidance or with more capable peers. Mentors can stretch youth into this zone of cognitive and intellectual growth. In doing so, mentors can help youth test their ideas and sharpen cognitive skills around an interest area in ways that they would not use on their own, in passive classroom activities, or in day-to-day conversation with their peers. Adolescents can then incorporate what they have learned from these interactions into their existing base of knowledge and competence.

Mentors as Path Finders

Given the complicated transitions that other close relationships undergo in adolescence, and the openings provided by their growing capacity for understanding and reflecting, mentors are uniquely positioned to provide youth with safe yet challenging contexts to explore interest areas.  In particular, mentors can:

engage youth in the sorts of deep, reflective activities, conversations, and learning experiences that can advance their critical thinking, self-awareness, and interests.

help youth navigate choices around their interests, which are often in competition for limited time and working memory.

help youth make connections between their interests and their identity, mentors can put youth on the path to happiness.

In doing so, mentors can help youth enter that self-determined universe where there were once only walls.

Discussion questions

  1. How should mentoring relationships be structured to optimize interest-driven learning and development?
  2. A recent meta-analysis, DuBois it all found that matching on shared interest led to stronger effects. How specific does this matching need to be, how developed does the interest need to be (exploration→spark/passion)?
  3. To what extent to ethical/cultural/practical issues arise in intergenerational interest development?

Related videos

Psychologist Martin Seligman discusses the three paths to happiness
Psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi talks about the path to happiness