Scholars of the life course have long hypothesized that generativity, or constructive activity that benefits others, is important to mid- and later-life human development. (Examples of generativity include parenting or grandparenting, social activism, or tending a community garden.) Studies have suggested that the perception of generativity—that is, feeling that one is useful to others—may contribute to successful and healthy aging. A recent longitudinal study tested this hypothesis by examining whether the self-perception of generativity predicts improved longevity and a lower risk of disability in a national sample of older adults in the US.
Researchers used data from the MIDUS Study, a longitudinal study of healthy aging based on a national sample of adults in the US. For this study, the researchers included the 1,353 participants in the MIDUS study who were between the ages of 60 and 75 at the beginning of the ten-year study. At this first time point, participants completed an assessment of self-perceived generativity by stating how strongly they agreed or disagreed with six statements such as “I have a good influence on others.” Participants also assessed their level of contribution to their friends, family, and community. These assessments were used to assess the participants’ self-perceived generativity.
Because this study was conducted to examine the relationship between generativity and health outcomes, the researchers also collected data on other variables relevant to health. Participants provided demographic and health information, as well as information about their levels of activity, mood, and social support. As outcome measures, the researchers tracked participants’ changes in disability (as measured by difficulty with activities of daily living, or ADL) and mortality over the next ten years.
The researchers found that, when controlling for the demographic and baseline health factors, higher self-perceptions of generativity led to lower odds of increased ADL disability and lower odds of dying in the ten-year study period. Participants with high generativity had about a ten percent lower risk of dying or of having greater difficulty with two or more ADLs over the ten years, even when controlling for the other health and demographic factors.
In sum, this study supports the hypothesis that generativity can be a significant contributor to healthy aging. The authors note that the sample used in this study is not purely representative of the U.S. older adult population, as individuals at the highest and lowest income levels are underrepresented, as are racial and ethnic minorities. However, this study is still a broader, closer-to-representative sample than previous studies on the effects of generativity on health and mobility, and adds to our understanding of healthy aging.
Greunewald TL, Liao DH and Seeman TE (2012). Contributing to others, contributing to oneself: perceptions of generativity and health in later life. J Gerontol B Psych Sci Soc Sci. Epub ahead of print.