Thriving Through Crisis, with Pamela Ebstyne King

phone use banner

Jerome Blanco: The last two years have been marked by a tremendous amount of suffering and loss worldwide. In the midst of such a devastating crisis—in a pandemic where we are faced with questions and matters literally involving life and death—what does it mean for us to thrive, and not merely survive? Is such a thing even a question we can be asking ourselves in a time such as this?

Pamela Ebstyne King: Perhaps the question of “What does it mean to thrive?”—especially through an extended period of suffering and loss—is one of the most important questions of our era. To thrive is to grow in and through adversity toward God’s purposes for us. God’s purposes are bigger than our own lives, our own communities, and even our current period in time. God’s purposes have to do with the flourishing and fulfillment of God’s creation and our being drawn into God’s ongoing activities through the love and grace of Jesus Christ in the Spirit. As God’s beloved, who are called to be God’s loving presence in our own unique ways as we participate in God’s ongoing work in this world, we want to be fully formed so that we can fully engage in God’s continued work of reconciliation, restoration, and fulfillment. This deep formation is thriving.

Thriving is not a self-help or personal growth buzzword. Human thriving involves flourishing societies and creation. The Thrive Center has spent the last two decades pursuing a theologically informed psychological science of human thriving. True thriving is to grow and adapt vigorously toward purpose, which means to develop in authenticity with and for others. Thriving is fueled by faith, love, and meaning. Even in adversity or with scarcity of resources, we can pursue purpose by growing, even if not as quickly as we would like, into our strengths and competencies in communion with God and others as we serve others. Pursuing purpose has to do with the journey of growing as our unique selves, in relationship with and contributing to others, as we become more like Christ.

In the last two years, we all have been challenged and, at times, have had to focus on surviving—whether because of threats to our health, our sense of justice, our safety, our relationships, as well as the disruption of so many of the routines and forms of “normal” life. We were all forced to spend energy on surviving. However, this does not have to preclude thriving. Having a thriving mindset allows us to seek ways to experience and offer love, find and make meaning, and pursue purpose that is aligned with our strengths and passions and allows us to become more like Christ. Living into such purpose is a pathway to both joy and justice, which fuels and directs us in a thriving trajectory in a manner that enables others to thrive.

JB: What does it look like then for us to pursue purpose? To intentionally adopt a mindset of thriving, beyond a mindset of surviving?

PEK: Let me distinguish more clearly between the two. Surviving is based on threat and adversity. The human brain is wired to activate when faced with perceived danger—whether a physical or psychological threat. And thank God, because we would not be here today if we did not have these automatic reflexes that often are referred to as “fight or flight” responses to danger. Throughout human history, our species has relied upon and benefited from these reactions to survive. However, given that humans have shaped and changed the environments in which we live over time, our existence depends less upon survival. That said, the extent to which people are relegated to surviving varies by context. For example, too many people still live in poverty, face the threat of daily violence, and/or are subjected to systemic injustices. Living in chronic adversity triggers a survival mindset. However, regardless of circumstances, humans do not need to be limited to surviving; we can also actively pursue thriving.

Note the difference. Given that a surviving mindset has been forged through being subjected to threat, it is reactive, motivated by fear, and focused on coping. In addition, a surviving mindset focuses on “me and mine” and results in attitudes and behaviors that benefit oneself or one’s immediate people. Alternatively, a thriving mindset is one that is proactive, motivated toward purpose, and focused on hoping. A thriving mindset can focus on “me,” but not at the expense of “we.” Thriving involves the intentional pursuit of living out one’s purpose for the sake of others. Psychologists recognize purpose as an enduring goal that is both meaningful to the self and makes a valued contribution beyond the self.1 No matter what our circumstance, we can be purposeful. We can increasingly become aware of our gifts and passions. We can increasingly discern ways we can use them to serve others, and we can become more Christlike in the process.

Given the broken nature of this world, we are constantly needing to apply both surviving and thriving mindsets. However, even in seasons of loss or in the face of oppression, we want to hold on to a vision of thriving for ourselves and those around us. In order to do so, we need to cultivate habits and engage in practices that promote a thriving mindset. This includes practices that attune us and ground us in our feelings, our beliefs, our giftedness, our sources of joy, and God’s presence. In addition, practices that intimately connect us with close sets of caring people whom we are also accountable to are crucial. And lastly, practices that keep us directed and mindful of our goals and refining our purpose are helpful. All this can be very effective for becoming more aware of sources of joy and aligning our desires closer to God’s.

JB: I’d like to focus on this idea of sources of joy. Especially given the times we live in, joy might seem to many of us like such a far-off idea. How can we possibly have joy at a time like this?

PEK: Joy is not an option. It’s absolutely central to our Christian faith. In fact, psychological science has demonstrated that the positive emotions associated with joy are essential for our motivation and central to growth, and the meaning of joy serves to guide and direct us towards those things that matter most. The reality is that joy is natural, but it does not always come naturally—especially in the middle of a pandemic. Sometimes we need to work at joy and cultivate it. We need to tend to those things, activities, relationships, and beliefs that are life-giving to us. Practically speaking, this involves becoming more aware of when we feel profound joy and pursuing those things more intentionally. In other words, make joy a habit. Joy is a natural outcome of thriving, and it also furthers us in thriving.

Pamela King (headshot)

Pamela Ebstyne King is the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science and executive director of the Thrive Center for Human Development, a multidisciplinary research center with a dual mission as both an academic research center that teaches and mentors future scholars in the field of psychology and a nonprofit organization that conducts and converts research about human thriving into applied resources.

Jerome Blanco: The last two years have been marked by a tremendous amount of suffering and loss worldwide. In the midst of such a devastating crisis—in a pandemic where we are faced with questions and matters literally involving life and death—what does it mean for us to thrive, and not merely survive? Is such a thing even a question we can be asking ourselves in a time such as this?

Pamela Ebstyne King: Perhaps the question of “What does it mean to thrive?”—especially through an extended period of suffering and loss—is one of the most important questions of our era. To thrive is to grow in and through adversity toward God’s purposes for us. God’s purposes are bigger than our own lives, our own communities, and even our current period in time. God’s purposes have to do with the flourishing and fulfillment of God’s creation and our being drawn into God’s ongoing activities through the love and grace of Jesus Christ in the Spirit. As God’s beloved, who are called to be God’s loving presence in our own unique ways as we participate in God’s ongoing work in this world, we want to be fully formed so that we can fully engage in God’s continued work of reconciliation, restoration, and fulfillment. This deep formation is thriving.

Thriving is not a self-help or personal growth buzzword. Human thriving involves flourishing societies and creation. The Thrive Center has spent the last two decades pursuing a theologically informed psychological science of human thriving. True thriving is to grow and adapt vigorously toward purpose, which means to develop in authenticity with and for others. Thriving is fueled by faith, love, and meaning. Even in adversity or with scarcity of resources, we can pursue purpose by growing, even if not as quickly as we would like, into our strengths and competencies in communion with God and others as we serve others. Pursuing purpose has to do with the journey of growing as our unique selves, in relationship with and contributing to others, as we become more like Christ.

In the last two years, we all have been challenged and, at times, have had to focus on surviving—whether because of threats to our health, our sense of justice, our safety, our relationships, as well as the disruption of so many of the routines and forms of “normal” life. We were all forced to spend energy on surviving. However, this does not have to preclude thriving. Having a thriving mindset allows us to seek ways to experience and offer love, find and make meaning, and pursue purpose that is aligned with our strengths and passions and allows us to become more like Christ. Living into such purpose is a pathway to both joy and justice, which fuels and directs us in a thriving trajectory in a manner that enables others to thrive.

JB: What does it look like then for us to pursue purpose? To intentionally adopt a mindset of thriving, beyond a mindset of surviving?

PEK: Let me distinguish more clearly between the two. Surviving is based on threat and adversity. The human brain is wired to activate when faced with perceived danger—whether a physical or psychological threat. And thank God, because we would not be here today if we did not have these automatic reflexes that often are referred to as “fight or flight” responses to danger. Throughout human history, our species has relied upon and benefited from these reactions to survive. However, given that humans have shaped and changed the environments in which we live over time, our existence depends less upon survival. That said, the extent to which people are relegated to surviving varies by context. For example, too many people still live in poverty, face the threat of daily violence, and/or are subjected to systemic injustices. Living in chronic adversity triggers a survival mindset. However, regardless of circumstances, humans do not need to be limited to surviving; we can also actively pursue thriving.

Note the difference. Given that a surviving mindset has been forged through being subjected to threat, it is reactive, motivated by fear, and focused on coping. In addition, a surviving mindset focuses on “me and mine” and results in attitudes and behaviors that benefit oneself or one’s immediate people. Alternatively, a thriving mindset is one that is proactive, motivated toward purpose, and focused on hoping. A thriving mindset can focus on “me,” but not at the expense of “we.” Thriving involves the intentional pursuit of living out one’s purpose for the sake of others. Psychologists recognize purpose as an enduring goal that is both meaningful to the self and makes a valued contribution beyond the self.1 No matter what our circumstance, we can be purposeful. We can increasingly become aware of our gifts and passions. We can increasingly discern ways we can use them to serve others, and we can become more Christlike in the process.

Given the broken nature of this world, we are constantly needing to apply both surviving and thriving mindsets. However, even in seasons of loss or in the face of oppression, we want to hold on to a vision of thriving for ourselves and those around us. In order to do so, we need to cultivate habits and engage in practices that promote a thriving mindset. This includes practices that attune us and ground us in our feelings, our beliefs, our giftedness, our sources of joy, and God’s presence. In addition, practices that intimately connect us with close sets of caring people whom we are also accountable to are crucial. And lastly, practices that keep us directed and mindful of our goals and refining our purpose are helpful. All this can be very effective for becoming more aware of sources of joy and aligning our desires closer to God’s.

JB: I’d like to focus on this idea of sources of joy. Especially given the times we live in, joy might seem to many of us like such a far-off idea. How can we possibly have joy at a time like this?

PEK: Joy is not an option. It’s absolutely central to our Christian faith. In fact, psychological science has demonstrated that the positive emotions associated with joy are essential for our motivation and central to growth, and the meaning of joy serves to guide and direct us towards those things that matter most. The reality is that joy is natural, but it does not always come naturally—especially in the middle of a pandemic. Sometimes we need to work at joy and cultivate it. We need to tend to those things, activities, relationships, and beliefs that are life-giving to us. Practically speaking, this involves becoming more aware of when we feel profound joy and pursuing those things more intentionally. In other words, make joy a habit. Joy is a natural outcome of thriving, and it also furthers us in thriving.

Written By

Pamela Ebstyne King is the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science and executive director of the Thrive Center for Human Development, a multidisciplinary research center with a dual mission as both an academic research center that teaches and mentors future scholars in the field of psychology and a nonprofit organization that conducts and converts research about human thriving into applied resources.

The first answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism is that the chief end of humankind is to “glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.” As Christians, we are commanded to enjoy God as we glorify God. We most glorify God when we are fully alive as our authentic selves beholden by God. We are most fully alive when we are full of joy. Think about it. Consider moments in your life you have felt most fully alive. My guess is that emanating joy has been central to them.

A helpful way of thinking about joy is understanding what matters most in human life. Theology and psychology help us understand that true joy occurs when we pursue purpose as I described above—when growing in authenticity and living more into one’s strengths, growing in depth of relationships and contributing to others, and living more aligned with one’s ethical and spiritual ideals. The more one is able to live a strength-based life, in reciprocating relationships with others, and live with moral coherency, the more joy one will experience in life. Thus, joy is not just an individual pursuit, but one that deeply involves our connections with others. We can discover and experience joy in a variety of ways—doing those things we love to do, in intimacy or providing for others, and clarifying and coherently pursuing our values. When these domains of self, other, and values overlap, that is perhaps when we experience the most joy.

thriving art

Joy is really complex; furthermore, joy and sorrow are deeply connected. They are both a response to those things that matter most. Joy is our delight when we experience and celebrate those things that we hold as most significant—like a birth or a graduation. Sorrow is our response to the violation, destruction, or deterioration of such sacred and meaningful things. This perspective helps us understand why the last two years have been so deeply challenging: the loss of human life due to COVID-19, the devaluing of human life evident in structural racism, social isolation, and restricted opportunities to pursue goals and roles that were once sources of joy and meaning. Even almost two years later, we are grieving and find ourselves in such profound sorrow.

That said, this complex understanding of joy also informs how we can experience joy and sorrow at the same time. As Christians we are called to praise and lament. I often say that joy is double fisted. We need one hand to hold all that we find joy in—whether now or in the life to come—and one to hold our sorrow for the suffering and brokenness we experience and witness. Through our spiritual practices, we can continue to attune ourselves to true joy, which does not serve to minimize suffering and loss. Rather joy reminds us that we can simultaneously raise a hand in praise and gratitude to God, and the other in lament. The feelings and emotions of joy awaken us—they stir us and activate us towards God’s goodness. But they also awaken us to loss and suffering. Furthermore, as Christians, even when sources of joy are distant or desecrated, we can have hope that all will be restored and redeemed. At times, our current joy is sustained by what we have faith and hope in. In seasons of disruption and loss, what is key is to intentionally make a habit of being connected to things that matter most. Remembering, rehearsing, and/or pursuing our deepest loves—our sources of true joy, even in the faintest of ways—can help sustain us in the most challenging of times. When we can’t do this on our own, community is crucial to recollect and share that joy with and for us. So even when we cannot lift a hand in praise or the weight of lament is too heavy to lift on our own, we need others to hold and lift our hands with and for us.

JB: I can imagine that all of this can be read by some as “easier said than done.” The muck of reality makes this pursuit of purpose, joy, and hope a much stickier process than we’d want it to be—especially given the season we’re living in. In certain spaces there might be a “guilt” or “idea of failure” pressed on people when we find ourselves unable to hold on to hope—when thriving might feel out of reach. Can you speak to that “pressure” that we might feel in this push to purpose, joy, and hope?

PEK: First off, thriving and purpose should not feel like more pressure or another expectation. Thriving is an invitation. Ultimately, as people of faith, thriving is an invitation to lean into the love and grace of God and to respond by offering our lives as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1). Thriving stems from being ever more deeply rooted in God’s love for us and his creation. Oddly enough, as Christians, we often feel guilty about dwelling on God’s love for ourselves and tending to our own needs and desires. We are often preoccupied with what we are doing for God. In addition, our experiences of discipleship often have focused on behavioral conformity—with the goal of becoming more like Jesus. Somehow becoming “more like Jesus” implies becoming “less like yourself” when discipleship becomes reduced to sin management.

I believe that the “fullness of life” that we have in Christ involves being fully alive as our unique selves. I imagine that God wants us to become like Jesus as ourselves, not as another. Conformity to Christ does not mean uniformity. In order to be the body of Christ, we must live into our unique giftedness. I deeply appreciate Irenaeus’s famous quote: “The glory of God is humankind fully alive.” This may be better understood as, “The glory of God is a living person, and the life of that person occurs in beholding God.” We thrive when we behold God and become increasingly aware of our being beholden by God.

In addition, our cultural values of performance and success distort our understanding of a thriving Christian life and can result in twisted ideas and expectations about thriving and purpose. For example, a performance orientation often emphasizes our own efforts and misses the primacy of our need to surrender to God and to rely on the Holy Spirit through processes of discernment. In addition, a performance orientation emphasizes worldly standards of success and can drive expectations around outputs, impact, and influence. These things are not bad in and of themselves, but I know, as an academic, I can find myself driven by pervasive pressures like “publish or perish,” and I have to be intentional about reminding myself that thriving is an invitation to not only lean into God’s love but also to live into a new order—one set forth and defined by the pattern, the logos, of Christ’s life.

As Christians we understand that we live between two realities: the reality of a material and broken world, and the reality of God’s inbreaking into this world through the person of Jesus Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit. As mere mortals, we find ourselves pulled between the values of these realities, so having the mind of Christ or being conformed to Christ is complex. In order to do so, we need to steep ourselves in God’s word, be in authentic and accountable community with others, and engage in spiritual practices that allow us to connect to God’s love and ourselves. Practices that help calm us or emotionally regulate us increase our attentiveness to God’s presence, increase our self-awareness, and allow us to have deeper empathy and compassion for others. The Thrive Center features a variety of practices that are science-informed and designed to nurture habits to promote thriving, purpose, and joy. Some of the practices are geared to help us slow down and deepen our connections to God, ourselves, and others. Others are designed to elevate our emotions and direct us towards our beliefs, values, goals, and purposes. For example, a Thrive practice, like “The 5 A’s,”2 or a more traditional Christian practice such as the Examen Prayer,3 when practiced over time, heightens our awareness of God’s presence in and through us and also alerts us to our deepest joys.

Attending to virtues like joy and gratitude is very powerful because they simultaneously direct us toward those things which matter most and inform our sense of purpose. Furthermore, the positive feelings associated with these virtues also fuel and motivate us toward pursuing purpose, which in turn leads to more joy and gratitude. They are like gifts that keep on giving. The more we open ourselves to love, joy, gratitude, and purpose, the more they will direct and fuel us on our journey of thriving.

Up Next
Fuller Magazine

Tommy Givens, associate professor of New Testament, talks about the ways we ought to know and care for the places in which we live—and how doing so is a key aspect of our discipleship.