The Positive Psychology of Adult Generativity: Caring for the Next Generation and Constructing a Redemptive Life
Dan P. McAdams
As first described by Erik Erikson (1950), generativity is an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations, through parenting, teaching, mentoring, leadership, and engaging in a range of life activities aimed at leaving a positive legacy for the future. This paper describes recent empirical and theoretical work on the concept of generativity in midlife personality development. Research shows that highly generative adults in American society prove to be more effective and engaged parents, experience broader social networks and more satisfying social support, invest themselves heavily in religious and/or civic institutions, engage in high levels of volunteer work and other behaviors aimed at improving the world they live in, and enjoy better mental health, compared to less generative adults. Highly generative adults also appear to construct personal life stories that underscore the power of human redemption, seeing themselves as “called” (by God, good circumstances, DNA, luck, whatever) to transform negative experiences into positive outcomes, both in their own lives and in the lives of others. Redemptive stories told by highly generative American adults reprise certain cherished, as well as contested, cultural themes in American history, heritage, and culture. Generative adults appear to draw upon inspiring narratives in their culture to provide meaning and purpose for their own lives. At the same time, these redemptive stories hint at possible cultural biases or shortcomings and suggest, moreover, that generativity may sometimes have a dark side.