Benefitting Ourselves While Benefitting Others: The Importance of Generativity

“How to Talk About Dying” was the name of one of the “Most Emailed” articles on The New York Times website in early July. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, written by bestselling author and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Dr. Atul Gawande, has an average of 5 out of 5 stars with nearly 3,000 reviews on What used to be a very unsexy topic in our culture – having a dialogue about aging and the end of life – seems to be having a moment.

One of the issues relevant to this discussion of aging and what matters as we near the end of life is the concept of generativity. Generativity is our desire to contribute or add value to the lives of other people, particularly to members of younger generations who will live on after we ourselves have passed. Essentially, generativity is a concern for other people, especially for those younger than us, and we can be generative in many ways, including through parenthood, volunteering, teaching and mentoring, neighborhood and community activism, or our careers. Through generativity, we can care for others, and we can contribute to the world and the people we will ultimately leave behind.

Why do we want to be generative? Researchers have talked about how generativity may come from multiple motivations. One of the reasons people form a desire to be generative is because they have a “need to be needed” by others or to feel useful to or needed by other people. It can also stem from a desire to leave a legacy that lives on after one has passed, or from wanting to give back and make a difference to others.

Wherever it stems from, generativity may have real consequences for our health and longevity. In fact, several studies now have established that people’s sense of how generative they are, or their self-perceptions of generativity, are associated with both psychological and physical health outcomes. For example, adults with more positive self-perceptions of generativity tend to have lower levels of depressed and anxious mood, and they also tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. Adults who have more positive self-perceptions of generativity also have a lower risk of developing physical disabilities. Generativity may even have an impact on how long we live; older adults who feel more generative or feel that they are useful to and needed by other people have a lower risk of mortality.

Together, the existing research suggests that feeling like you are useful to and needed by others and that you are making a difference to society is a key component of healthy aging. Given that having more positive self-perceptions of generativity is associated with better health outcomes, generativity seems like it could be a target for public health interventions. That is, researchers may be able to help older adults who have lower self-perceptions of generativity by designing interventions that boost people’s sense of contributing to younger generations and feeling useful to other people. And given the links between feeling more generative and better health outcomes, maybe these interventions could ultimately improve the health and well-being of people who are feeling like they are not very generative.

Until recently, it wasn’t clear whether such an intervention would actually have any impact on people’s perceptions of their own generativity. A study published this year by Tara Gruenewald, a gerontology professor at USC who studies generativity, and her colleagues investigated whether it was possible to increase people’s perceptions of generativity through an intervention. Dr. Gruenewald and her colleagues hypothesized that their intervention, which involved older adults volunteering to tutor elementary school children for at least 15 hours a week, would increase older adults’ sense of generativity.

Interestingly, they found that the intervention did in fact improve older adults’ self-perceptions of generativity. That is, the older adults who received the intervention were more likely to agree with statements like “I feel like I am making a difference in the lives of others” after they participated in the intervention than they did at the start of the study. The findings of this study suggest that it is possible to develop programs which may bolster older adults’ sense of generativity, which may ultimately have important public health consequences and also makes this an exciting and promising area for future research.

While there is still much left to study about generativity, the research that’s been done so far generally supports the idea that it plays an important role in aging. Moreover, the concept of generativity and its importance for healthy aging is definitely something worth discussing as our society becomes more open to talking about issues relevant to aging and the end of life. Indeed, when Dr. Atul Gawande was promoting Being Mortal, he very eloquently touched on this point: “People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, connect with loved ones, and to make some last contributions to the world. These moments are among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.”