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Since our founding in 2000, Thrive has funded leading researchers in the science behind thriving, which we define as “a forward, purposeful motion towards achieving one’s full potential.” This scientific research provides an important foundation for our work with youth-serving organizations. It also influences our funding priorities and shapes the practices of our grantees. Thrive’s commitment to guiding disadvantaged youth onto a thriving trajectory will continue to be grounded in applied research.

Our intent here is to put the research we support into practice, disseminating lessons learned, tools and research relevant to organizations, parents, educators and others dedicated to youth reaching their full potential. This database includes information about our prior investments and partnerships in research, including the work resulting from our $1 million commitment to the Stanford Center on Adolescence to support Professor William Damon’s groundbreaking research into “purpose” in the lives of young people: what it is and how they find it—or don’t— along with Thrive supported research conducted by Dr. Peter Benson and The Search Institute, Dr. Richard Lerner at Tufts University Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, Carol Dweck and Dr. David Yeager from Stanford University.

To learn more about the research that can help place youth on a trajectory to thrive, as well as useful measurement tools, click on any of the 5 categories below. We invite you to check back often as we will regularly update it with new content including lessons learned, tools, and research. 

What is Thriving?

Have you found your place in the world, where you have had the opportunity to express your talents and abilities, with enough resources in place to support you?

Do you feel like your work and life make a difference?

If so, you are probably “thriving.”

Thriving is not a destination but a journey. Thriving is a work in progress: the task of strengthening those elements (internal and external) that orient our lives in a positive way. We believe some of those elements in the lives of youth are:

    • finding their sparks,
    • having a strong sense of purpose,
    • having a growth mindset,
    • and having caring adults in their lives to support them and help them access needed resources.

But thriving is not like making soup, where you put all of the right ingredients together and then you have thriving. A person can be thriving – or be on their way to thriving – without all the elements fully in place. Moreover, there are most likely many more elements yet to be discovered that contribute to thriving. We asked youth service providers who were working with the most disadvantaged youth – in difficult, often violent, neighborhoods – when they knew a youth was thriving. The answers were surprisingly consistent: youth are thriving when they take charge of their own lives and begin to give back to the community. Within that definition are sparks, purpose, a growth mindset, and, most likely, a caring adult. Thriving will be different for each individual, and therefore hard to define. Still we seek to understand what goes into thriving and to help create those conditions – especially for disadvantaged youth – so that all youth can thrive.

“What is Thriving?”

Interventions to Promote Thriving

Measurement of Thriving

Sparks / Purpose

What gives you joy when you do it?

What interests or subjects are you really passionate about?

What difference does what you do make to the world around you?

Why is who you are and what you do important to you and the world beyond you?

The answers you gave to these questions help identify your “Sparks,” and can point you toward your purpose in life.

Dr. Peter Benson of the Search Institute, defines a Spark as a special quality, skill, or interest that a person has a desire to pursue. A person can have more than one Spark. Sparks can:

  • Be an inner passion, interest, or talent that is central to a person’s identity.
  • Originate from inside a person, rather than being imposed from the outside.
  • Be a source of intrinsic motivation, meaning, and self-directed action that can help drive young people forth in other areas. (1)

To have a purpose is to have the intention to accomplish something with your life that is both meaningful to you, and has positive consequences to the world beyond you. It is, as Dr. Bill Damon from the Stanford Center for Adolescents puts it, “a desire to make a difference in the world, to contribute something to others, or create something new, or accomplish something of one’s own.” (2)

Finding your Spark helps answer the question of what you love to do. Discovering a purpose helps answer the question of why you love to do it. A Spark and a sense of purpose, found and develop with the support of caring adults, can be a catalyst for personal growth that can lead to thriving: the gathering of skills, relationships, knowledge, and personal characteristics all put to use for a purpose larger than oneself that will benefit the world. When a person is working toward his or her true purpose, they are on their way to thriving.



Measuring Purpose

“I liked it. I met new people. It’s a lot of activities, we went different places. It got me comfortable in different kinds of zone areas, in different communities. A lot of people were there. Some offered to help me out in any kind of way.”—Youth

(1) Benson, P. L. (2008).
(2) Damon, W. (2008a).


When you are not able to do something as well as you desire, do you:

Want to give up, figuring you don’t have what it takes? Or,

Want to work harder, trying to improve?

When you succeed at something without much effort, do you:

Attribute it to your superior talent and ability? Or,

Attribute it to your hard work that made the task easy to perform?

The answers you give to these questions help identify your mindset.

A mindset is an attitude toward your own abilities, be they intelligence, skills, talents, or aptitudes. There are two prevalent mindsets, according to Dr. Carol Dweck who has researched this field:

  • The fixed mindset: You believe that your personal qualities are fixed and that you have been given only a certain amount of talent, intelligence, ability, and/or character. You are either good or bad. Have a lot or a little. You can improve around the edges, but either you have it or you don’t.
  • The growth mindset: You believe that your personal qualities are things you have worked hard to establish including talent, intelligence, ability, and/or character. You believe that although many people differ in the initial amount of talent, aptitudes, and abilities, everyone can change and grow through hard work and experience. (Dweck 2006).

The growth mindset drives one toward thriving. Caring adults can help youth acquire a growth mindset through modeling it in their own lives and encouraging youth to work hard to improve their abilities, including their intelligence, their moral character, their talents and their interests.


Measuring Mindset

Goal Setting and Achievement

Are you able to say no to something right now for something better in the future?

Do you have goals for the future that guide what you do right now?

Are you able to control your immediate impulse for the sake of something more important to you?

You may have heard of the famous “marshmallow test.” Dr. Walter Mischel, while at Stanford University in the 70’s, did this experiment with 4 and 5 year-old children: A single marshmallow was put before a child and the child was told he or she could eat the marshmallow now, or, if the child waited 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, the child could have 2 marshmallows. Mischel followed the children as they grew into adulthood and those who waited showed greater gains in school and achieving other life goals than their counterparts (Mischel, W. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control , New York: Little Brown and Co.). The children who waited were able to use the goal of getting one more marshmallow to help them complete the task.

Goal setting and achievement is a process that involves everything from controlling your emotions, delay of gratification, impulse control, and intentional self-regulation among other concepts. In the adolescent, the structures in the brain that are involved in planning, in regulating emotions with a future goal in mind, in containing impulses for the sake of a better, future reward, are all growing and developing. Research from Dr. Richard Lerner’s lab at Tufts University has shown that, while sparks and purpose can help set goals, success in achieving goals – even success in life – depends on these skills (Napolitano, C. M., et al. 2011). Caring adults can play a crucial role in helping youth develop intentional self-regulation, by modeling these behaviors, helping youth to develop goals, teaching them about how their present actions will impact their future, and reminding them that every decision they make has positive or negative consequences.


Goals & Planning

Goals & Measurement

Caring Adults

As a young person:

Who were the adults who helped (or have helped) you discover your passions and interests?

Who were the adults who were there for you no matter what?

When you succeed at something without much effort, do you:

Who were the adults who helped you work hard to develop your talents and abilities and put them to good use in the world?

The answers you give to these questions help identify the caring adults in your life.

Caring adults have two crucial elements: 1) they love the youth in their lives unconditionally, working hard to build and maintain trust, and 2) they set appropriate boundaries and high expectations for the youth with whom they interact. In addition, caring adults recognize and cultivate the unique talents and abilities in youth (their sparks), help them grow those talents and abilities (a growth mindset), and discover how to use them for the betterment of the world (their purpose). Caring adults are role models who provide a consistent, compassionate and trustworthy presence. Youth are better able to manage their anger and learn how to build trust when they have caring adults in their lives who model trustworthiness, share information, connect youth to necessary support, help with homework or study habits, and who can always be contacted (by phone, in person or even by a text message) in times of need.

Caring Adults

“If it wasn’t for my case manager I probably would’ve been in jail right now for life…It took me a long time to trust my case manager, but after that [she] was awesome. I [can] talk to her about everything and she just helps me with everything.” –Youth

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