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How Spirituality Helps Us Thrive Personally and Relationally

A continued interview with Pamela King on spirituality's role on our actions.

How does our understanding of meaning and spirituality affect us as people and the ways we engage with others? In this interview, Dr. Pamela King shares spirituality's significant role in helping us thrive both individually and relationally.

Pamela King, used with permission
Source: Pamela King, used with permission

Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D., is Peter L. Benson Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Science at the Thrive Center for Human Development in the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests focus on the intersection of human thriving, moral, and spiritual development. Her current research includes studies on environments that promote thriving and on the nature and function of spiritual development in diverse adolescents and emerging adults. She has extensively studied and written on conceptualizations of thriving and positive youth development. King is coauthor of The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective, co-editor of The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, and co-author of the forthcoming Thriving with Stone Age Minds (Intervarsity Press) with Dr. Justin Barrett.

This is part two of a two-part interview with Dr. Pamela King; you can find Part 1 here.

Jamie Aten: How might readers apply what you found to their lives?

Pamela King: This study affirms that people are spiritual and that we all seek meaning in this world—and often do so through our understanding of God or our perception of transcendence. Although this study did not test the psychological processes that link spirituality with prosocial and civic action, there is a substantial body of research that does. This literature explains how spirituality and religion can be extremely effective resources for thriving and meaningful lives. For example, see this summary based on a recent special issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research.

Through spirituality, people potentially have access to prosocial ideals and beliefs, a community to support them, and a source of transcendence that motivates behaviors aligned with their ideals. From a psychological perspective, when people experience a benevolent God or higher power—especially in the context of a community that shares, exemplifies, and practices these beliefs—prosocial or other-oriented ideals and goals become central to one’s sense of self, undergird their motivation systems, and nurture a sense of noble purpose. When our identity, values, motivations, and sense of purpose are based on love, compassion, and service, we will act with other-oriented goals. Spirituality and religion tend to provide explicit and clear sets of prosocial ideals, historic or living examples of faith, social support, and profound experiences of belonging, love, grace, and significance in a way that motivates people to sustain their commitment to moral and civic ends.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others?

PK: I think these findings are very important for our times. The health and racism pandemics of 2020 have spurred social and personal upheaval, prompting many people to evaluate their aspirational convictions and even question traditional sources of meaning, values, and beliefs. The civic and religious structures within the U.S. have been radically shifting. These traditionally reliable sources of trust, belonging, and ideals have been eroding, forcing Americans to find meaning and purpose on their own, with little or no institutional guidance. When left to our own devices (literally), we tend to choose engagement in anonymous platforms that do not offer the rich and clear set of beliefs and ideals, caring and accountable social relationships, or the practices and experiences that have the potential to be so formative within religion and spirituality.

Consequently, I advise faith and spiritual leaders to leverage the natural ideological, social, and transcendent opportunities available to them in order to nurture morally and civically responsible youth and adults. Spirituality is more than a feeling, and people will become bored by spirituality that stops at emotional connection and arousal. Spirituality needs to not just fuel and motivate, but needs to guide and direct people towards meaningful ends and actions that bring both personal and social transformation. That is spirituality at its fullest.

Furthermore, the reality is that all humans seek to belong to something beyond themselves. If they do not have viable religious or spiritual opportunities for deep resonance, they will look elsewhere—political parties, causes, civic organizations, teams, etc.—to gain a sense of belonging, meaning, direction, and motivation. Consequently, secular organizations and platforms would be more formative by maximizing their ideological, relational, and transcendent elements to the extent that they can. Regardless of which organization, leaders should ground, connect, and direct their constituency towards prosocial ends that contribute to the thriving of persons beyond their group.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

PK: I am currently working on several research projects that further explore some of these issues. With two colleagues at Thrive Center and Fuller Theological Seminary, I am involved with conducting a new form of semantic analysis that will explore the focus groups transcripts from the Fetzer Institute study in order to garner the most salient themes of spirituality that provide more nuance and understanding of the multidimensional nature of spirituality in America at this time. In addition, through a grant by Biola University and the John Templeton Foundation, my team is studying the psychological components of gratitude to God. We are very interested to further study how one’s experience of gratitude to God, or other cosmic sources, may vary in nature and impact as gratitude experienced between persons. Our hunch is the perceived sacred or transcendent component of “gratitude to God” may be associated with psychological benefits linked with thriving, well-being, and prosocial behavior. At this point, it’s too soon to tell.


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