Vocation & Purpose

Contributing our strengths to the world by living out our response to love.    

Purpose reflects our intentional engagement with the world.

The longing for purpose can be felt in the heart of each and every human. We all have strengths that yearn within us to be expressed and validated in our relationships, jobs and vocations, and spirituality. Purpose guides who we are becoming, and a purposeful journey deepens our connections to our communities and the work of our lives. Feelings of purpose can infuse us with a spirit of readiness and joy, enthusiastically embracing the rewarding possibilities each day may hold. These feelings are not only a result of knowing we are in pursuit of a fulfilling purpose, but understanding that our giftings play a pivotal role in a greater story—something bigger than ourselves. Researchers in the field of psychology see purpose as a “north star,” a guiding light that helps us walk down a meaningful path, offering a role to play in a greater story. Pursuing our path of purpose orients our lives in meaningful ways that connect us to God and others. How do you understand your sense of purpose? Do you see your part in a greater story?

A curated content list

Discover more about vocation and purpose

Redeeming the Past: Owning Your Story, Cultivating Courage, and Finding Peace with Dr. William Damon

How does where you’ve been contribute to where you’re going? How does your story shape your sense of purpose? Developmental psychologist William Damon (Stanford University) has spent his career studying the human lifespan, and has found both in his research and personal experience, that by courageously exploring our personal histories, we’ll stay on a path toward purpose and peace.

How to Navigate Life: Psychological Tools to Find Your Purpose with Dr. Belle Liang

Are you looking for a sense of purpose? Does it feel like you’ve lost your way? Purpose is a vital part of our spiritual health. We know we need it, but for some of us, it can be so hard to find. Psychologist Belle Liang helps us navigate and thrive holistically through an understanding of our own journey and the stories that shape us. She names four essential elements of purpose: (1) character strengths, (2) skills and expertise, (3) deeply held values, and (4) a sense of contribution to the world. Includes a real-time practical exercise for aligning with our purpose and explore how it can help us navigate the journey of life.

Motherhood and Thriving: Navigating with Grace

What serves to ground, connect, and direct towards joy? Dr. Pam King asks this question as a guide for Mothers and others.

A Practice: Questions for Life Review

These questions are intended to help you examine your life to discover meaning and purpose, no matter where you are in life's journey.

A Practice: Finding Purpose by Imagining the Future and Excavating the Past

This practice is taken from an interview with Dr. Belle Liang and is adapted from her book, How to Navigate Life.

A Practice: The Power of Purpose

Download this practice to help you discover more about yourself and your purpose.

Thrive Book List Purpose Edition

Purpose is at the heart of thriving and an outcome of healthy spirituality. Our fall Thrive Book List suggests great guides for discovery.

Growing Forward: Questions to Promote Love and Meaning

If you want to train your brain out of anxiety and/or discover more about yourself, find a trusted friend or small group and work through these questions

Life off Autopilot (Part 2): The Complexities of Activating into Purpose

When we know that finding purpose is so important for our spiritual health and wellbeing, why is it sometimes so hard?

Spring 2023: What We’re Reading About Purpose

  Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear Why we like this book: James Clear offers concrete steps we all can take to change our habits for more purposeful living. If you have trouble making changes in your life and have goals you want to achieve, this book provides a framework for how to get results. The trick is to think in baby steps. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem Why we like this book: Menakem describes how pain and trauma are embodied. The body holds our deepest wounds, and this book offers a healing process for recovery from the harms of racism, and a process for purposeful change.

What is Thriving and Why is it Important?

Psychology and theology come together to provide a vision for the good life

Woman staring out

Recovering from Hardship

Dr. Pamela King discusses how tapping into our faith and contributing to a flourishing world can help us thrive through difficulty.

Waves forming in the ocean

Next Wave Spirituality: Thriving From Within and From Beyond

As the world continues to languish, Dr. Pamela King emphasizes the need for spirituality as a source of personal and societal transformation.

Person leading group

An Invitation to Thrive

Dr. Pamela King invites leaders to reimagine and lead in new ways in order to enable all people and communities to thrive.

Dreaming Again

This article is from the Peer Magazine issued in September, 2021.

Men doing volunteer work during COVID-19

The Inward and Outward Power of Purpose

Researcher, Dr. Susan Mangan offers summer activities to help us discover our purpose in this changing world.

Youth surfing at the beach

Sense of Purpose and Thriving: A College Student’s Perspective

A college student reflects on the importance of finding a sense of purpose as the key to thriving in college.

Girl reading sacred text

Staying Grounded, Connected, and Directed

Dr. Pam King discusses how spirituality can help us stay grounded, connected, and directed throughout difficult challenges.

Calling

Summary Developmental psychologist, Benjamin Houltberg traces the intersections of research and ministry in his work, as well as his desire to integrate his research with understanding people’s pain and representing God’s love with them. He was interviewed by Evelyn and Frank Freed Professor of Marital and Family Therapy at Fuller Theological Seminary, Terry Hargrave. Author’s Note This presentation was originally published on FULLER Studio. About the Author Benjamin Houltberg was the former associate professor of human development at the Thrive Center. As a developmental scientist, his research centers on relational factors that impact emotional health within high-stress environments. Much of his work is on the role of identity development and character virtues in sport as they relate to emotional health and athletic performance. He currently serves as the president and CEO of the Search Institute.  …

Performance vs. Purpose

Benjamin Houltberg discusses the impact performance and success have on emotional wellbeing on the I Love Success Podcast.

What It Means to Thrive in Life and How to Do It

Benjamin Houltberg defines thriving, sharing the key ways anyone can live a flourishing and purposeful life on the Converge Podcast.

Telos

Summary Pamela Ebstyne King, executive director of the Thrive Center, provides her definition of telos and explains the important role it plays in youth development inn this interview with Yale Youth Ministry Institute.   Author’s Note This interview was originally published on Yale Youth Ministry Institute.   About the Author Pamela Ebstyne King Pamela Ebstyne King is the executive director of the Thrive Center and serves as the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests are applied research at the intersection of human thriving and spiritual development. Dr. King’s work combines theology, empirical research, and community engagement to further understand what contexts and settings enable all people to thrive.

Applications of Telos

Summary Executive director of the Thrive Center, Pamela Ebstyne King shares the meaningful ways youth practitioners, ministers, and mentors can help advance a sense of telos or purpose in adolescents. Author’s Note This interview was originally published on Yale Youth Ministry Institute.   About the Author Pamela Ebstyne King Pamela Ebstyne King is the executive director of the Thrive Center and serves as the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests are applied research at the intersection of human thriving and spiritual development. Dr. King’s work combines theology, empirical research, and community engagement to further understand what contexts and settings enable all people to thrive.

Purpose & Joy

Summary Why is purpose so important to joy? Executive director of the Thrive Center, Pamela Ebstyne King discusses how pursuing purpose can help adolescents discover true joy in this interview. Author’s Note This interview was originally published on Yale Youth Ministry Institute.   About the Author Pamela Ebstyne King Pamela Ebstyne King is the executive director of the Thrive Center and serves as the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests are applied research at the intersection of human thriving and spiritual development. Dr. King’s work combines theology, empirical research, and community engagement to further understand what contexts and settings enable all people to thrive.  …

What is Vocation?

Summary In this interview, Pamela Ebstyne King, executive director of the Thrive Center, argues that vocation stems from three simultaneous processes: becoming like Christ, forming a unique sense of self, and establishing a healthy community.     Author’s Note This interview was originally published on FULLER Studio.   About the Author Pamela Ebstyne King Pamela Ebstyne King is the executive director of the Thrive Center and serves as the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests are applied research at the intersection of human thriving and spiritual development. Dr. King’s work combines theology, empirical research, and community engagement to further understand what contexts and settings enable all people to thrive.  …

Christa Scholtz giving a mother keys to a new house

United by a Common Purpose

A Thrive Fellow reflects on her experience of building a home for a family in Mexico, and the power serving others can have on purpose.

Finding Purpose in Sports

Summary Founding member of Hope Sports, Benjamin Houltberg offers psychological insights on what it means for young athletes to have a purpose-based identity, and how to help them move from a performance-based identity to purpose in sports.   Author’s Note This presentation was originally published by Hope Sports. About the Author Benjamin Houltberg Benjamin Houltberg was the former associate professor of human development at the Thrive Center. As a developmental scientist, his research centers on relational factors that impact emotional health within high-stress environments. Much of his work is on the role of identity development and character virtues in sport as they relate to emotional health and athletic performance. He currently serves as the president and CEO of the Search Institute.

29 Content Resources

A curated content list

Discover more about Thrive's research

Hindsight in the 2020’s: Looking back and forward to positive youth development and thriving

Author: King, P. E., & Mangan, S. Citation: King, P. E., & Mangan, S. (2023). Hindsight in the 2020s: Looking back and forward to positive youth development and thriving. In L. J. Crockett, G. Carlo, & J. E. Schulenberg (Eds.), APA handbook of adolescent and young adult development (pp. 609–627). American Psychological Association. Abstract: Positive youth development (PYD) started as a field of practice before it became a field of study. With a heightened awareness of the necessity of a framework for the thriving of all youth and all societies, the chapter considers the purpose of PYD and consequently revisits the concept of teleology, offering a revised understanding of telos, or the ultimate goal of a given construct—in this case, of PYD. It refines and updates the current notion of thriving to not only emphasize adaptivity and relationality as central to thriving but also identify the significance…

Back to the Future: Volf’s Eschatological Vision of Flourishing for a Psychology of Thriving

Author: Pamela Ebstyne King, Rebecca Ann Baer Abstract: In this article, we aim to explain how Miroslav Volf’s theology of flourishing provides a new vision for psychologists. As the Henry B. Wright Professor and Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Volf is recognized as one of the most influential living theologians. His recent work offers a theology of human flourishing based in an eschatological vision of God’s homecoming, the unification of the Creator with His created. For Volf, the end provides a telos, a purpose, and direction, for current human life. He asserts that although proleptic, flourishing occurs simultaneously within the two eschatological “already” and “not yet” realities through the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit in the context of love. The true life is a life led well, going well, and feeling as God intends and is characterized by love, peace, and joy. In this…

Joy as a Virtue: The Means and Ends of Joy

Abstract: To grasp human flourishing and thriving, we must understand joy. However, no theoretical models explain the complexity of joy as a fruit of the Spirit, nor fully account for its impact on human life. We suggest that joy is best conceptualized as a virtue, a psychological habit, comprised of characteristic adaptations and given meaning by transcendent narrative identity. Thus joy involves knowing, feeling, and enacting what matters most. Developmental science and Christian theological approaches to teleology inform the ultimate ends to which joy is aimed. They suggest that telos, the purpose or goal of development, may be understood as a dynamic process that perpetuates human and social thriving and involves (1) the growing self, (2) mutually beneficial relationships, and (3) evolving moral guidelines that ensure an ongoing fit and flourishing of self and society. We synthesize developmental psychology, virtue science, and theology to propose a definition and framework for understanding…

Vocation as becoming: Telos, thriving and joy

Author: Pamela Ebstyne King (Page 185-210) Abstract: This volume represents one set of reflections on issues of vocation, formation, and theological education in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Each of the contributors to the volume is (or was, in one case) a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, an institution that, like many others, has been wrestling seriously with the global transformation of theological education for at least the past decade. With the generous support of Fuller’s Office of Vocation and Formation, the editors of this volume–all of whom at the time of the project’s origins directed the PhD program in their respective schools (Downs in the School of Theology, Houston-Armstrong in the School of Psychology, and Yong in the School of Intercultural Studies)–invited colleagues to participate in an interdisciplinary conversation centered around questions of vocation and formation in our own institutional context. This book is the result…

The reciprocating self: Trinitarian and Christological anthropologies of being and becoming

This paper summarizes a Christological and trinitarian anthropology in order to propose a developmen-tal teleology that offers a vision for being and becoming human. From a Christological perspective, Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, and becoming like Christ as distinct persons is God’s intention for all of humanity.

Hindsight in the 2020’s: Looking back and forward to positive youth development and thriving

Author: King, P. E., & Mangan, S. Citation: King, P. E., & Mangan, S. (2023). Hindsight in the 2020s: Looking back and forward to positive youth development and thriving. In L. J. Crockett, G. Carlo, & J. E. Schulenberg (Eds.), APA handbook of adolescent and young adult development (pp. 609–627). American Psychological Association. Abstract: Positive youth development (PYD) started as a field of practice before it became a field of study. With a heightened awareness of the necessity of a framework for the thriving of all youth and all societies, the chapter considers the purpose of PYD and consequently revisits the concept of teleology, offering a revised understanding of telos, or the ultimate goal of a given construct—in this case, of PYD. It refines and updates the current notion of thriving to not only emphasize adaptivity and relationality as central to thriving but also identify the significance…

Back to the Future: Volf’s Eschatological Vision of Flourishing for a Psychology of Thriving

Author: Pamela Ebstyne King, Rebecca Ann Baer Abstract: In this article, we aim to explain how Miroslav Volf’s theology of flourishing provides a new vision for psychologists. As the Henry B. Wright Professor and Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Volf is recognized as one of the most influential living theologians. His recent work offers a theology of human flourishing based in an eschatological vision of God’s homecoming, the unification of the Creator with His created. For Volf, the end provides a telos, a purpose, and direction, for current human life. He asserts that although proleptic, flourishing occurs simultaneously within the two eschatological “already” and “not yet” realities through the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit in the context of love. The true life is a life led well, going well, and feeling as God intends and is characterized by love, peace, and joy. In this…

Joy as a Virtue: The Means and Ends of Joy

Abstract: To grasp human flourishing and thriving, we must understand joy. However, no theoretical models explain the complexity of joy as a fruit of the Spirit, nor fully account for its impact on human life. We suggest that joy is best conceptualized as a virtue, a psychological habit, comprised of characteristic adaptations and given meaning by transcendent narrative identity. Thus joy involves knowing, feeling, and enacting what matters most. Developmental science and Christian theological approaches to teleology inform the ultimate ends to which joy is aimed. They suggest that telos, the purpose or goal of development, may be understood as a dynamic process that perpetuates human and social thriving and involves (1) the growing self, (2) mutually beneficial relationships, and (3) evolving moral guidelines that ensure an ongoing fit and flourishing of self and society. We synthesize developmental psychology, virtue science, and theology to propose a definition and framework for understanding…

Vocation as becoming: Telos, thriving and joy

Author: Pamela Ebstyne King (Page 185-210) Abstract: This volume represents one set of reflections on issues of vocation, formation, and theological education in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Each of the contributors to the volume is (or was, in one case) a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, an institution that, like many others, has been wrestling seriously with the global transformation of theological education for at least the past decade. With the generous support of Fuller’s Office of Vocation and Formation, the editors of this volume–all of whom at the time of the project’s origins directed the PhD program in their respective schools (Downs in the School of Theology, Houston-Armstrong in the School of Psychology, and Yong in the School of Intercultural Studies)–invited colleagues to participate in an interdisciplinary conversation centered around questions of vocation and formation in our own institutional context. This book is the result…

The reciprocating self: Trinitarian and Christological anthropologies of being and becoming

This paper summarizes a Christological and trinitarian anthropology in order to propose a developmen-tal teleology that offers a vision for being and becoming human. From a Christological perspective, Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, and becoming like Christ as distinct persons is God’s intention for all of humanity.

5 Content Resources

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Life off Autopilot (Part 1): The Power of Purpose

Finding purpose can be a process and a spiritual practice in itself.

Dive Further

Ethics & Virtues

Identity & Narrative

Relationships & Community

Habits & Rhythms

Transcendence & Spirituality

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