Teenagers have tremendous capacity for spiritual growth and thriving when they are embedded in a context telling them they have a purpose in life and that they are valuable and capable members of society. Many minority youth growing up in socioeconomic disadvantage, however, are at much higher risk for outcomes such as incarceration and emotional disruption. Consider for a moment the hypothetical lives of two teenagers: Trevor and Evan.1 Both young men attend a high school on the south side of Chicago and live in a neighborhood replete with challenges that can hinder positive development. Many people would consider their odds of becoming flourishing adults quite low; however, their experiences as adolescents have the power to shape and even transform their life paths.
About a year ago, the trajectories of these fictitious boys’ lives began to diverge. Trevor heard about a group called Team World Vision (TWV) from one of his friends. He went to a TWV meeting and found out that 30–40 teens from his school would be running 26.2 miles in the Chicago Marathon to raise money for clean water in Africa. Although Trevor had never really thought about raising money for kids halfway around the world (his family had barely enough money to get by), he was really inspired by the passion of the group leaders and decided to sign up for the marathon. Over the next few months as Trevor began to train with his team, others began to observe changes in Trevor. His teachers began to notice that he was spending more time on his homework and was more patient with annoying kids in class. Trevor also seemed better able to manage his anger and began to care about others. He started developing virtues like patience, self-control, and generosity.
Evan began participating in athletics, but he had a different type of experience. He joined the basketball team at his school. His coach emphasized winning at all costs and would tell Evan he was only as good as his last game. Evan was the top player on the team and began to dream of a professional basketball career and making money. Evan began to really enjoy his newfound social status at school and attending parties where drugs and alcohol were abundant. He felt like he deserved a break after working so hard in practice, so he didn’t feel bad drinking a lot. Evan did increase in self-control during basketball season, but he was pretty focused on himself and what served him.
Both of these young men began to engage in athletics, but the effect of their sport participation differed significantly. Trevor began to derive worth from his relationships with others and God as well as the contribution he could make to the world. Evan began to derive worth from his personal status as an athlete and future success. Although both boys demonstrated short-term benefits from their athletic involvement, only Trevor seems to be developing character strengths and virtues that will enable him to make a contribution to his community as he gets older.
As researchers who study thriving and character development, we wonder what it is about the experiences of these two boys that are most predictive of their divergent pathways. We surmise that it is the transcendent purpose and spirituality embedded in Trevor’s athletic involvement that enables him to develop virtues in the TWV context, whereas the focus on the self and personal performance on Evan’s team stunts character development.
As much as these are compelling anecdotes of the way spirituality can influence the trajectory of an adolescent’s development, it is difficult to know if Trevor is just an exceptional human being, or if the ability of spirituality to build character in the lives of youth is replicable across individuals and contexts. To answer this question, researchers in the School of Psychology’s Thrive Center have been engaging in scientific inquiry to understand the nature of thriving and how religion and spirituality might affect thriving in adolescents.
Theology of Human Thriving
What does it mean for a person or community to thrive? In many ways the idea of thriving has become a buzzword in popular culture, but very few people (psychologists included) can clearly define it. As the science of human thriving has expanded over the past 15 years, it has become apparent that it is impossible to create a value-neutral definition of thriving. Instead, philosophy, ethics, and theology are highly relevant to understanding the good life in a meaningful way.
Given the vast theological resources available to us at Fuller, a team of faculty from the Thrive Center (Drs. Pam King, Justin Barrett, Jim Furrow, and Sarah Schnitker) along with some theology colleagues (Drs. Oliver Crisp, William Whitney, Bill Dyrness, Joel Green, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Jason McMartin, and Matt Jenson) began constructing a new definition of thriving based on Christian theology and various psychological theories. After examining various psychological perspectives in connection with Christian doctrines, including creation, Christology, theological anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, among others, the group concluded that thriving is “a state of growing toward that which something is supposed to be . . . [and] given this definition, thriving can only be evaluated in relationship to some purpose or telos.”2 But what is our God-endowed telos—both corporate and individual?
Personality psychologists hold the truism that “every [person] is in certain respects: (a) like all other [persons], (b) like some other [persons], and (c) like no other [person].”3 The same may be true for God’s purpose in our lives. There are ways that all men and women are to intended to reflect the image of God and glorify him; there are ways he has given specific gifts and callings to groups of people; and there are ways he has made each of us to uniquely reflect his image and serve his kingdom.
Although scholars should examine all of these levels of human purpose, our research team has chosen to focus on the telos of thriving that all people share. We ask, who does God intend to develop and thrive? Although theology points to multiple answers to this question, a strong case can be made that God desires all of us to become virtuous people, demonstrating God’s loving work in our lives through the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5:22–23. Virtues are the habits that people develop through intentional practices and meaningful relationships that build up the moral community for a higher purpose. N. T. Wright describes the centrality of virtue formation in Christian ethics based on New Testament teachings in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. He states, “What Paul understands by holiness or sanctification (is) the learning in the present of the habits which anticipate the ultimate future.”4 Virtues become the means by which people are able to experience communion with God and with each other.
For psychologists who do integrative research, this then poses an interesting question: how do we help adolescents to develop virtues, and how can spiritual development facilitate (or hinder) this process? Christian Scripture and theology suggest that virtues develop by allowing the Spirit to work in our lives (Matt 7:15–27; Gal 5:22–24), enduring suffering (Rom 5:3–4), and engaging in spiritual practices with a religious community.5 Psychology provides tools by which we can test when these three actually produce virtues and test the psychological mechanisms by which they bring about change.
How Do Virtues Develop? Considering the Importance of a Spiritual Purpose and Context
Since the late 1990s, the field of positive psychology has been investigating how character strengths and virtues are developed, and numerous positive psychological interventions that foster character strengths such as gratitude, forgiveness, self-control, and compassion have been empirically validated. However, these interventions are often presented in the popular press as a means to attain personal happiness in a context devoid of moral meaning. Researchers warn against the dangers of pursuing happiness for its own sake because pursuing virtues for hedonic purposes can actually undermine both virtue development and well-being. It is important to avoid seeing virtues as a means to an end (happiness), but instead to view them as important outcomes in their own right.
But who assigns significance and worth to virtue development? Historically, the development of virtues has been located in religious contexts for the purpose of honoring deities or the community.6 In modern times, virtue development has shifted to secular or therapeutic contexts for the purpose of individual well-being. Our research team asks, do virtue-building activities differ when practiced in a secular context rather than a religious context? Has this modern shift undermined virtue formation in our society—especially for adolescents and emerging adults—and can we facilitate the formation of virtues by imbuing interventions with spiritual purpose and meaning?
One approach our research group has adopted to answering such questions is using experimental research designs to directly test if framing an intervention activity with a spiritual versus instrumental purpose will affect the efficacy of the activity to build virtues. For example, Dr. Schnitker’s doctoral student Kelsy Richardson conducted a study in which emerging adult participants engaged in a gratitude journaling exercise for five weeks. The participants were randomly assigned to either pray thanks to God (imbuing the activity with spiritual meaning), read thanks to another person, or to read thanks to himself or herself. Findings showed that those in the prayer condition experienced greater gains in virtues and well-being than those in the other conditions, suggesting that gratitude might be more effective when practiced as a spiritual versus psychological exercise.
At present, our team is engaged in a large-scale experimental study to examine the effects of framing an intervention that builds self-control and patience in adolescents as spiritual, moral, or instrumental in its purpose. A plethora of research studies have shown that the ability to regulate one’s behaviors and emotions has a major positive impact on nearly all life domains, and a variety of interventions have been empirically validated to build patience and self-control. In many ways, self-control is like a muscle; it is a domain-general resource that is depleted after use but can become stronger with regular exercise. Many of the interventions that build self-control and patience seem to have corresponding spiritual disciplines that engage the same type of activity. For instance, regulating one’s diet or spending are empirically validated self-control interventions; the spiritual disciplines of fasting and tithing draw on these same basic actions but also include a higher purpose.
In our study, we are recruiting 480 adolescents to engage in a two-week self-control and patience intervention. The intervention is delivered in a game-like and interactive way through the CharacterMe smartphone app we’ve developed with Matt Lumpkin and Matthew Geddert. The app includes challenges meant to build basic regulatory resources (e.g., the “hand swap” challenge builds self-control by having participants use their nondominant hand to use their phones) as well as activities that build emotional fluency and help people solve interpersonal conflicts (e.g., the “selfie” challenge helps participants recognize their own emotions, and the “taking perspective” challenge helps participants reappraise negative interactions). Participants are randomly assigned to different versions of the app in which the language and framing of the activities emphasize how building strengths (or fixing weaknesses) will help them connect with something bigger than themselves (e.g., God; spiritual condition), will help them become a better person (moral condition), or will help them do better in school and athletics (instrumental condition). We are tracking the adolescents’ self-reported character from before they begin the intervention through six months after they complete it. We are also collecting ratings of the adolescents’ virtues from parents, friends, coaches, and teachers because those individuals may be better able to report true change. Our hypothesis is that the spiritual framing will lead to greater and longer-lasting development of patience and self-control.
Although experimental studies provide a rigorous means to examine the effects of spirituality on virtue development, it is just as important to examine how spirituality and religion affect character development across time in real-world contexts to increase generalizability and applicability of findings. A specific context of virtue and spiritual formation that our team examines is that of sport. Athletics are often presented as a crucible of character formation, but empirical studies (as well as glaring moral failures of celebrity athletes) suggest that sports do not always promote virtues. Similarly, athletes often integrate religious or spiritual practices into their athletics, but the ways this is done may actually cause psychological harm or be theologically flawed. Thus, we are engaged in several studies to specifically examine virtue and spiritual formation in the context of sport.
As described in the story of Trevor and Evan at the beginning of the article, we are studying adolescents running half and full marathons with Team World Vision. By tracking adolescents from the time they sign up to train for the marathon through three months after they finish the race, we are able to examine the effects of rigorous training on virtues like self-control, patience, and generosity. In addition, we are examining how motivations for training (e.g., honoring God, raising money for clean water, or getting physically fit) and social relationships with other runners and leaders affect virtue development as well as athletic and fundraising outcomes.
In addition to examining virtue and spiritual development in amateur sport, we are especially interested in examining responses to our research questions among elite athletes. The high-pressured environment of elite athletics provides unique challenges to spiritual and virtue development. Competition plays an important role in our society. It can help individuals maximize their potential by cultivating positive character virtues as well as creating mental and spiritual frameworks of resilience, purpose, and joy. However, humans do not always flourish in highly competitive environments, particularly when performance outcomes become the determiner of human worth. High-achieving individuals may impose unrealistic expectations for performance, which results in becoming overly critical when these expectations are not met.7 A sense of worth contingent on outcomes and expectation of perfection can create a performance-based identity that can have detrimental effects on emotional health.8
It doesn’t take long for children to discover their giftedness in sport and take notice of the affirmation that accompanies outstanding athletic performance. The natural trajectory of a talented young person is to begin to derive a sense of meaning and worth solely from athletic performance. This is especially true in the period of adolescence and emerging adulthood, a time of active identity development and of tendencies toward social comparisons with heightened sensitivity to social rejection. The challenge of self-worth being based in performance is that the stakes get higher as you perform better. Winning only means that the young person will have to keep winning in order protect his or her self-worth. Thus competition can be perceived as a threat that carries the same physiological and emotional processes that occur with a threat to one’s physical safety. This performance-based identity is not sustainable over time and often leads to emotional difficulties and challenges.
It might be assumed that Christian athletes would not struggle as much with basing their worth in sporting performance. After all, the heart of the Christian gospel is the unconditional love of God demonstrated through the sacrifice of Jesus that is clearly not based on human performance. However, in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Wang, our preliminary research findings are linking perfectionistic views of God to performance-based identity and negative emotional outcomes (e.g., shame, depression, anxiety) among a sample of Olympic and collegiate athletes. These findings introduce several questions about the impact of elite competition on the emotional and spiritual health of young athletes and why performance-based identity is also prevalent in Christian athletes.
One explanation of this might be an application of “muscular” Christianity to sporting performance. In other words, for some Christian athletes, winning is not just a matter of proving their own worth and value in sport but also appeasing a God who expects perfection in order for them to be deemed worthy. Therefore, God’s love is not only earned through performance but also requires domination as a way to bring glory to God’s name. This can also have evangelistic appeal, as some Christian organizations may focus on recruiting successful Christian athletes as spokespersons because of their athletic success. Although winning can create a pedestal to preach the gospel, it can also leave Christian athletes feeling that they must attain athletic success to be useful to God’s kingdom. This would be an example of ministering “through” athletes rather than ministering “to”athletes. In contrast, the latter focuses on sport as a context for spiritual transformation as a part of one’s vocation, which includes giftings that (a) remind one of God’s unchanging love, (b) provide a source of joy, and (c) create opportunities to connect and serve others.9
This spiritual framework holds potential for promoting character virtues and emotional health even in stressful environments such as elite competition. Identity that is rooted and established in God’s unconditional love and connection to something greater than self creates a freedom to perform at one’s best without the fear of not measuring up, and maximizes the potential for thriving. This has been seen in preliminary findings from our work with elite athletes. Purpose and meaning in life beyond sport was related to better emotional outcomes and feelings of comfort from God when experiencing a disappointing performance. This research has important implications for parents, coaches, and youth organizations that desire to see sports be used as a mechanism for character development. Perhaps Christian schools and organizations would benefit from a more intentional approach that promotes connection to God, others, and purpose in sports and counters the natural tendency toward performance- based identity. Further, in our estimation, findings derived from our research apply beyond the sporting context and are relevant across a variety of performance domains. We plan to continue to further explore and develop research-informed resources in this area.
Overall, we believe that our research will continue to identify key ways to promote thriving among youth and highlight the central role of spirituality and religion in virtue formation and emotional health. We also plan to produce research-informed insights and resources to equip caring adults (e.g., parents, youth pastors, coaches) who play a critical role in shaping the lives of young people. Perhaps the late Peter Benson’s quote best captures the essence of the communities that we want to create: “Thriving is about communities where people feel and know that they are persons of value and worth; that they have something unique to offer the world; and that they have the courage to act on their gifts.”10
Author’s note: The self-control and patience interventions and TWV studies described were made possible through the generous support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
- The accounts of Trevor and Evan are fictional, but their stories are loosely based on the experiences of many of the participants in our research studies.
- P. E. King and W. B. Whitney, “What’s the ‘Positive’ in Positive Psychology? Teleological Considerations Based on Creation and Imago Doctrines,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 43 (2015): 47–59.
- C. Kluckhohn and H. A. Murray, “Personality Formation: The Determinants,” in Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture, ed. C. Kluckhohn, H. A. Murray, and D. M. Schneider (New York: Knopf, 1953), 35.
- N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarerOne, 2010), 93.
- Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); Wright, After You Believe.
- K. Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); J. Graham and J. Haidt, “Beyond Beliefs: Religions Bind Individuals into Moral Communities,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 13 (2010): 140–49, doi:10.1177/1088868309353415; G. M. Leffel, “Beyond Meaning: Spiritual Transformation in the Paradigm of Moral Intuitionism: A New Direction for the Psychology of Spiritual Transformation,” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion 22 (2012): 25–125.
- J. Stoeber, “Perfectionism in Sport and Dance: A Double Edged Sword,” International Journal of Sport Psychology 45, no. 4 (2014): 385–94, doi:10.7352/IJSP 2014.45.385
- E. E. Conroy, J. P. Willow, and J. N. Metzler, “Multidimensional Fear of Failure Measurement: The Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory,” Applied Sport Psychology 14 (2002): 76–90, doi:10.1080/10413200252907752
- Ashley Null, “Some Preliminary Thoughts on Philosophies of Sports Ministry and Their Literature,” and “‘Finding the Right Place’: Professional Sport as a Christian Vocation,” in The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports, ed. Donald Deardoff II and John White (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2008), 241–54 and 315–66.
- P. L. Benson, Sparks (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).