Generativity: The New Definition of Success
Dan P. McAdams
The world was not left to us by our parents.
It was lent to us by our children.
— An African Proverb
What do these three people have in common?
The other mothers at Shirley’s PTA meetings had no idea that she worked as a madam, was deeply involved in drugs and organized crime, and would eventually do time in a federal penitentiary. Today, Shirley is an ordained church minister for an inner-city congregation. As part of her ministry, she organizes a local food pantry to feed poor families and the homeless.
Despite racial prejudice at school and work, Tony doggedly pursued his artistic dream and eventually developed a unique musical style that blends African and European traditions. Today he worries about race relations and the very survival of the human species, but he is optimistic: “I see so much beauty, so much creativity, so much productivity. I can’t help but be hopeful for the future.”
Raised in a very religious household, Christine was taught that she should find her “life calling” in service to others. But after three frustrating years as a social worker, Christine went back to school for an M.B.A. Today, she and her husband earn a substantial income as consultants to small businesses and nonprofit companies. She feels blessed in her work and family life, but she also feels she should “give something back.”
At this point in their adult lives, Shirley, Tony, and Christine are all focusing a great deal of attention and energy on the psychological challenge of generativity, an adult’s concern for and commitment to the well-being of future generations. In other words, creativity that lasts. Adults can be generative in many different ways — as parents, teachers, mentors, leaders, friends, neighbors, volunteers, and citizens. In her ministry, Shirley dedicates her life to feeding children, helping poor families, and witnessing to her inner-city congregation. As a teacher, Tony works hard to instill a love of music in his students. He hopes his work and his life will help to advance, in some small way, the well-being of future generations. As a mother, Christine focuses her generative efforts on her two daughters, but longs to do more.
Generativity is about generating good things (and people). Therefore, giving birth to a child is perhaps the most fundamental form of generativity. But people can “give birth” to many different kinds of things — from starting a company, to making music, to coming up with a new solution to a problem. Generativity is also about caring for those things (and people) that are generated, with an eye toward promoting the next generation. In generativity, we come to accept that we won’t live forever, and seek to leave a positive legacy for the future, to leave a part of ourselves behind. According to noted psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who gave us the term “identity crisis” and won the Pulitzer for his book on Gandhi, people begin to focus their lives on generativity as they move into their thirties, forties, and fifties. In the middle-adult years, Erikson wrote, a person may come to realize that “I am what survives me.”
Good for You, Good for Society
A growing body of psychological research shows that being highly generative is a sign of psychological health and maturity. People who score high on measures of generativity tend to report higher levels of happiness and well being in life, compared to people who score low. High generativity is also associated with low levels of depression and anxiety.
While generativity may be good for you, it is also good for your family and the society in which you live. Parents who score high on generativity measures are more caring and effective in their parental roles, and they are more invested in their children’s education. Highly generative adults tend to express a more spiritual understanding of life and to participate in religious activities at higher rates than do less generative adults. Generativity is also positively associated with volunteerism, community involvement, and voting. Social institutions such as schools, churches, and government agencies depend on the generative efforts of adults.
The Two Faces of Generativity
You need look no farther than the first chapter of Genesis to find perhaps the greatest generativity story in Western religious traditions. In the beginning, God creates –generates — heaven and earth. And then God creates people — in God’s own image. As adults, we do the same thing. Our generative products — our children, our work, our legacies — are modeled after ourselves, flesh from our flesh in the case of our children. In this sense, then, generativity involves extending the self in a powerful, almost narcissistic, way. Like God, we make a world in our own image.
But like God, we must care for what we have made. If the first aspect of generativity is a powerful extension of the self, the second aspect is almost selfless. It is not enough to make something in your own image. You must care for what you make, nurture and love it, sacrifice yourself for it, and eventually let it go. Letting go is not easy, as God learned when Adam and Eve disobeyed him. Ultimately, we cannot control what we generate. But we must care for and love it still.
The two faces of generativity are power and love, forces that often conflict in people’s lives. Our narcissistic need to develop and expand the self may conflict with our more altruistic need to care for and help others. In generativity, however, we have both. What we generate becomes a legacy of the self, and we care for that legacy selflessly. The fullest expressions of generativity blend power and love.
Redeeming Your Life
Over the past 10 years, my students and I have interviewed many highly generative adults. We have discovered that most tell their life stories with an emphasis on the theme of personal redemption. Consider the following examples:
A recently retired police chief who is still an active community volunteer, Jerome describes the turning point of his life as a chance meeting with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly before King’s death in 1968. As a young policeman, Jerome had been discouraged because blacks had repeatedly been stopped from rising through the ranks on the force. King told him simply, “Don’t give up; don’t let the dream die.” “He turned me round from walking out the door,” Jerome now recalls. Jerome persevered. He was eventually promoted through the ranks and became that city’s first African-American police chief.
A 49-year-old fourth grade teacher who has won awards for her performance in the classroom, Diana says her most important values are “to give back to society” and “to grow and help others grow.” Diana describes the lowest point in her life story: When she was eight years old and was supposed to be watching her five-year-old brother in the front yard, she got distracted. Her brother darted into the street and was killed by a speeding car. For many years after, Diana tried to be “the good son” her mother and father had lost. She played sports and took on other activities that boys were expected to go into. These efforts failed to alleviate her guilt, but Diana experienced a kind of redemption years later when she married a wonderful man whom “my parents love as a son.”
Highly generative adults tend to tell life stories filled with what psychologists call “redemption sequences,” where a bad scene or event gives way to a positive outcome, which redeems the initial bad event. Adults inclined toward generativity tend to see their own lives and worlds in redemptive terms. Bad things may happen. Suffering is inevitable. But good things will often result, if one keeps faith and hope alive. Erik Erikson argued that to be generative, people must have a basic “belief in the species.” They must have faith that despite suffering and setback, despite evil, human beings are potentially good, and human life can be good, for generations to come. This belief sustains our most difficult generative efforts. Holding out hope for ultimate redemption gives us faith that our legacies will be good, that things may work out in the long run.
The Key to Health and Happiness
Psychological health and happiness in the adult years depend on how we see the future and what we do to bring about the kind of future we wish to see. Generativity takes us beyond the short-term gains we often seek in daily life and orients us to the long run. “I am what survives me.” What do you imagine when you picture the good that will outlive you? Perhaps you see your children grown up and happy. Perhaps you see your students flourishing. Perhaps you see a world at peace.
I believe that the most generative people are constantly imagining such futures. They envision a better world for themselves, their families, and their society. When you imagine the future this way, it sensitizes you to the sacredness of life on earth. The most generative people among us cherish life as if it were a beautiful infant.
An African proverb says, “The world was not left to us by our parents. It was lent to us by our children.” What survives me are the world’s children, for whose sake I act today. It is as if the most generative people among us most readily envision the future’s children, as if they see the baby watching them. Innocent and dependent on our own efforts of care, the future looks to each of us with hope.
Dan P. McAdams is a professor of psychology and human development at Northwestern University and the director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives. His books include Intimacy: The Need to Be Close (Doubleday) and The Stories We Live By (Guilford Press), which has been hailed as one of the most important conceptual contributions to personality theory in 50 years. His ongoing study of generativity has been funded by a major grant from the Spencer Foundation.
How Generative Are You?
Research psychologists have developed various ways to measure individual differences in generativity. Keep in mind that generativity is not a personality trait that remains stable over time. People’s generative concerns, behaviors, and goals change over time, sometimes dramatically. And, of course, life is much more complex than these tests can measure. At best, you’ll get a snapshot of your generativity at the current moment — and perhaps inspiration to be more generative in the future.
To assess your generative goals, list the ten most important goals you are currently trying to achieve. While many goals have little to do with generativity itself, some goals are generative. For example, a parent’s goal to “save enough money to put my child through college” would be a generative goal. Generative goals involve either (1) creating or generating new things, (2) passing on valued things (such as traditions) from the past, (3) caring for or assisting other people, or (4) establishing relationships with younger people, or the next generation.
American adults in their thirties, forties, and fifties tend to list on the average two or three goals that express some form of generativity. Interestingly, those in their sixties and older list almost as many generative goals as do midlife men and women. But younger adults (in their twenties) list on average no more than one generative goal. The fact that younger adults tend to score low on measures of generative goals suggests that they are preoccupied with earlier developmental issues in life, such as identity (Erikson’s Stage Five) and intimacy (Stage Six).
This self-test includes items from the Loyola Generativity Scale (LGS), which measures overall generativity concern. For the following six items, mark a “0” if the statement never applies to you; a “1” if the statement sometimes applies to you; a “2” if the statement often applies to you; and a “3” if the statement always applies to you.
____ I try to pass along knowledge I have gained through my experiences.
____ I have made and created things that have had an impact on other people.
____ I have important skills that I try to teach others.
____ If I were unable to have children of my own, I would adopt children.
____ I have a responsibility to improve the neighborhood in which I live.
____ I feel that my contributions will exist after I die.
To get an estimate of generative concern, simply add up your scores for the six items. Research suggests that among American men and women in their thirties, forties, and fifties, an average score for these six items would be about 11. Younger adults (in their twenties) and older adults (in their sixties and older) typically score slightly lower. Research shows that adults who score high on this scale tend to be more involved in religious, community, and political activities, and tend to report higher levels of happiness and psychological well-being, compared to adults who score low.
Random Acts of Generativity
• Read a story to a child.
• Teach somebody a skill.
• Donate blood.
• Attend a neighborhood or community meeting.
• Produce a piece of art or craft.
• Give money to a charity.
• Assume a leadership position in a group.