September 22, 2020

The renewing power of generativity

Would you like a great idea for rejuvenating yourself?  Let me introduce you to the concept of “generativity” and explain how being generative can be a deeply renewing act.

The renowned psychologist Erik Erickson came up with the original concept as part of his work on the stages of human lives. (I reference this work a lot in my writing on the life course of a career and the seasons of our lives.  Erikson’s work finds generativity to be a core part of the work of the later stages of our lives, and he defines it as “primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation.”  (See his book Dimensions of a New Identity, published 1979.)  Elizabeth Hutchison, scholar of human behavior and the life course concept, defines generativity as “the ability to transcend personal interests to provide care and concern for younger and older generations.” (See her textbook here.). Both of these definitions focus on the wellbeing of future generations, as well as respect for the period of life associated with aging.

It’s my belief that this idea of generativity encompasses so many things that help to buoy us in the craziness of our current times.  Let me explain.

Generativity can take many forms, and it can be pursued in ways that are unique to your own life. Find a way that you can engage with making the future better or supporting an elder and showcasing her wisdom.  Here are some ideas:

  • Mentor a younger colleague
  • Adopt (informally) an elder who needs companionship
  • Deliver groceries to someone who finds it unsafe to be out and about in the pandemic
  • Teach (anything)
  • Volunteer to give back to a cause that has meaning or purpose to you
  • Give to charity or philanthropic causes
  • Devote time to raising and nurturing children
  • Create art or music
  • Write a book (or a blog)
  • Assume a leadership position in a group whose cause you care about

You will notice a common thread here – creativity, nurturing, supporting and giving – of your time, energy, talent, resources.  These things are generative.  And there is good neuroscience to indicate that every time you participate in a generative or creative act, you get a boost of neurotransmitters that make you feel good, happy and positive.

For those of you who may be entering a season of planning life differently — perhaps at a slower pace, or maybe even contemplating your aging and reorganizing your work life accordingly — it’s important to understand that generativity, as a concept and as a way of life, can support these transitions.  Generativity can support healthy aging in some amazing ways, and there is good evidence that some neurobiological and psychological shifts that happen as we age actually lead to greater happiness.

Here’s the thing about generativity, though.  It doesn’t just happen.  We have to plan for it, and be intentional about building it into our lives.  Planning for something that has meaning and purpose starts with understanding what actually gives us meaning and purpose. This stems back to a question I ask at the start of nearly every coaching engagement:  “What matters most to you, right now, in this season of your life?” (If you haven’t asked yourself that question lately, revisit it – and if you’d like some help, check out my free workbook to get you started).

Once you have a sense of what matters, and that place from which meaning and purpose flow for you, then you can take the next step.  Ask yourself, “What is one thing related to things I care about that would be generative?”  From there, you can build a game plan to do that one thing at a frequency that the action and your time and energy will permit.  Just make sure you find a way to do it — you’ll be very glad you did.

Your perspective, plus more on generativity

I hope you found this useful, and if you’d like to share your experience with acts of generativity in the comments, I’d love to have that conversation with you.

And if you’d like to keep learning, here is another great article on generativity and this article demonstrates how generativity can contribute to happiness.

Last updated September 22, 2020

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Navigating the seasons of your life

The mid-career transition: Navigating your own course