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Dreaming Again

"Knowing what you love or what brings you the deepest joy is a helpful way of finding purpose." By Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D.
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Purpose is palatable. It’s powerful. It orients and motivates you. It’s exhilarating. It taps into the passion of your heart, sparks the capacities of your mind, moves your body to action and connects you to like-minded and like-hearted people. When you have a purpose—you have a direction, you have clarity and you are motivated. Pursuing one’s purpose is a key way to thriving or becoming your best self with and for others. If you want to thrive, then I invite you to explore your purpose.   

Although research shows that many youth have a strong sense of purpose these days, there are others who don’t feel like they have a clear direction. This is okay. Purpose is something you can discover and cultivate. 

While many youth have a lot of options, they don’t always know what to focus on—which can be paralyzing. For example, as teens transition from high school to college, it might be difficult for them to choose the right major or right college. This indecisiveness might feel like you are wasting time. Other kids are without resources, needing to work so they can help support their family—which can cause them to feel like they don’t have time or energy to think about or pursue purpose. Some are numbed out by busyness and being over-programmed, or by being preoccupied with technology to fill up any discretionary (and potentially purposeful) time or energy. However, the reality is when we don’t have a purpose, we start languishing. We aren’t thriving. 

One of my earliest memories where I experienced the pull of purpose was my first encounter with The Salvation Army. I was sitting in the office of my high school guidance counselor, Mr. Robert Ferrantelli, who, I eventually found out, was an active member of the Salvation Army. I remember spinning the handle of a carved wooden toy (a vintage fidget spinner, of sorts) as we discussed my future. Mr. Ferrantelli, in all his wisdom and ease, nudged me to think about my purpose underlying all my ambitions and expectations. 

Although I didn’t sort out the details of my life’s purpose that day, I did work my way towards recognizing that my general purpose in life was to honor God—whether that was through my schooling, work or relationships. As my life has evolved, I now study “purpose” from both biblical and psychological perspectives. Within Christianity (and as the Heidelberg Catechism asserts), our ultimate purpose is often described as glorifying and being united with God. As Christians, we think about purpose as being aligned with our authentic selves, our relationships and the needs of our communities, as well as how it enables us to become more Christlike. So, being stressed out or cheating to pursue a goal is NOT consistent with a Christian purpose.

What is Purpose?

In my work as a developmental psychologist, I have come to understand that glorifying God is often an underlying and motivating purpose for people. Within psychology, purpose is defined as an actionable enduring goal that is meaningful to the self and to the world around you, according to William Damon in his 2008 research on the development of purpose during adolesence. There are three parts to this definition. 

First, purpose is not vague, but a goal that is relatively lasting and that you can actively pursue. So, don’t be surprised if your purpose changes over a lifetime! Second, this enduring goal must draw on your strengths, passions and interests. Your purpose is not doing what someone else expects of you, but rather it’s aligned with your deepest joys and talents. Lastly, a true and noble purpose is one that makes a contribution beyond your own life. Thus, personal financial success or fame is not a purpose. Whereas, using one’s gifts of financial investment to earn money to provide funding for those less fortunate has all three aspects of purpose.

It’s one thing to know the definition of purpose, but another thing to identify and pursue it. The good news is that purpose is a life’s journey. It involves reflection, exploration, experimentation and practice. Purpose is found in our natural strengths and interests. So, knowing what you love or what brings you the deepest joy is a helpful way of finding purpose. 

4 Ps To Identifying Purpose

People: Deepen the relationships with those who matter most in your life. This could be with a family member, a close friend, or a caring adult like your pastor, mentor, coach or teacher. This can even be God! Reach out to people who will affirm and support you throughout your journey.

Prosocial: Think about the contributions you can make to your community. What are your community’s needs? How can you help others thrive? For example, if you’re a great student, consider tutoring the kids in your school who might be struggling with their grades. Remember, thriving involves growing with and for others.

Propensity: Work to identify your strengths and skills. What comes naturally and effortlessly? Most importantly, how can these strengths and skills help you attain your purpose? For example, maybe you love photography. How can you use this skill for a purpose?

Passion: What are you most passionate about? What brings you joy? When we are passionate about the things we are pursuing, we are more motived to commit to them. 

When we integrate our strengths, passions, behaviors and relationships toward our purpose, we can thrive!

How to Practice Purposeful Prayer:

Acknowledge who God is to you—loving, all powerful— in whatever words are most meaningful to you. Share an honest statement about where you are with God today. This may include feeling close to or perhaps distant from God. Regardless of where you are with God, recognize that He loves you just as you are. 

Ask the Holy Spirit to be with you in this time of prayer and to give you God’s wisdom.

Reflect back on your day. Remember the events of the day. What did you do? Who were you with? What were you feeling? What did you notice around you? 

Now, ask the Spirit to remind you of the moments where you felt the most joy, when you were at peace, when you had a sense of wellness and enjoyment, when you felt most alive.

Next, think of the moments in the day where you felt the least joy, felt anxious or conflicted, had a sense sadness, felt most deadened. What was underlying these feelings? Ask God for strength and wisdom during such experiences. 

Close by thanking God for the joyful experiences and for being with you throughout all these experiences.

Try to spend five minutes a day with this prayer for a week or a month. For most people, prayers like this one can provide a growing sense of awareness of where their desires align with God’s desires overtime. As teens, this world has so many prescribed expectations. While these can be wonderful opportunities, they can often times make you feel trapped by busyness and loneliness. Try viewing perceived challenges as opportunities to clarify your purpose. Continue to pray and ask God to reveal to you what brings you the most joy, and how to identify and pursue a purpose that enables you to be your most authentic self—with and for others, with and for God. 

Identifying and pursuing purpose takes time. You can’t do it alone. God did not create us to be in isolation, but to rely on Him and other people. Obstacles and frustrations are a necessary and important part of this journey. If you feel lost or off course, use this prayer as a “GPS” to help you navigate and get back on track. So, in a nutshell, you can thrive on purpose!

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Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D., MDiv. is Executive Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development and the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science in the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the intersection of human thriving, moral and spiritual development, and joy.

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