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Character  &  Context

A Secret to Healthy Aging May Be What You Do for Others

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By Lauren Howe

There’s a common saying: “Like a fine wine, we only get better with age.” And thinking about the best way to grow old is increasingly important. Americans are expected to live for longer than ever, with adults age 65 expected to live on average for 20 more years. How can we age happily and healthily?

Research by Tara Gruenewald and colleagues suggests that one secret may be the time we spend caring for and giving back to others. Gruenewald studies generativity: the desire to give back, particularly to younger generations. When older adults feel more generative, they feel that they have contributed to the welfare and well-being of others. They agree that they have skills to pass along and that others need them.

Impressively, feeling generative may help older adults to live longer. In one study, Gruenewald and her colleagues found that adults ages 70-79 who reported that they felt more useful to family and friends were more mobile and less likely to die over the seven year study period. As Goethe famously said, it seems “a useless life is an early death.” Additional studies also showed that adults who feel less useful die earlier and at much higher rates.

In a new study, older adults read a news story that either emphasized the value of the aging population – by focusing on its potential for generativity - or a story that depicted the aging population as placing a burden on the rest of society. When they read the story about older adults’ generative potential, these older adults performed higher on a memory test.

This is especially important because we may be most likely to hear negative messages about aging. As Gruenewald says, “We are typically fearful of the burdens that our aging society may represent in terms of healthcare and economic security needs. But there’s another way to think about our aging society, and that’s as an opportunity to engage a population with people significant experience, time, wisdom, a natural resource to meet pressing problems in our world.”

How can we help older adults harness the power of generativity? By developing roles that allow them to meaningfully impact others’ lives. As one example, Gruenewald and her colleagues created a volunteer program, the Baltimore Experience Corps, which connected older adults with elementary school children as mentors. This program increased the older adults’ feelings of generativity. Through such studies, these researchers hope to create knowledge that can help aging adults thrive during the later years of life.


Lauren Howe is a 5th year PhD candidate in social psychology at Stanford University and the Shaper Family Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow. Her research interests include rejection, patient-physician interactions, and trust in experts.

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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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