The longest-running study of our time shows that helping others leads to a beautiful life.
Jill Neimark | September 2007 issue
Laura Goodall believes she has a great life. But it hasn’t been easy. Her father deserted her mother when Laura was in high school. She suffers from chronic arthritis and psoriasis. She was 47 when her husband left her and their five teen-aged children—after divesting himself of all financial assets, so Goodall was ordered by the court to vacate their home and pay him half her teacher’s salary. Her older brother was killed in an airplane crash, and though she was still struggling financially, she often took in a nephew or two to live with her.
Why does Laura Goodall consider her life to have been so wonderful? She’s remarried, close to all her children, a practising Catholic whose faith enlivens her life, and above all, she feels joy in giving to others. She and her second husband run a nature store. “We feel very good about what we’re doing,” she says, “trying to make people aware how fortunate we are to have this beautiful world. It’s always been important to me that I’ve done something I thought would contribute to society.”
Goodall is one of nearly 200 individuals followed by psychologists for the last half-century as part of one of the longest-running social-science studies of our time. The research, which began in Oakland, California, in the 1920s, combined semi-annual interviews until participants graduated from high school, and has since followed them at intervals of 10 years. An astounding 90 percent of people have stayed in the study, giving it coherence and offering insights into what constitutes a happy life. One of the keys is generativity—the ability to give to others—according to psychologist and researcher Paul Wink of Wellesley College, who oversees the study and has co-authored a book on the findings titled In the Course of a Lifetime.
“Laura is absolutely happy and vital,” says Wink. “She manages to turn everything that happens to her into a good event. When she got a very bad ear infection recently she felt that it would help her understand the deaf—she actually said she’d gained ‘a totally, beautifully, new understanding of deaf people.’ She describes everything in generative terms—in terms of giving to others.”
According to Wink, the protective effect of giving on mental and physical health buffers an entire lifetime. Wink found that teens who scored high on generativity in high school were healthier and happier half a century later. “There was a strong correlation with mental health in particular,” he says.
Wink has interviewed more than 90 of the study participants all over the U.S., while a colleague has interviewed the rest and produced videotapes for Wink to watch. He’s been mining all the data to sift out the health effects of generativity and faith, and hopes for funding to study how these folks develop wisdom. “I rarely have found such interesting data,” he marvels. “The lives of these people span all the major changes of the 20th century. They were children in the Great Depression, teens during World War II—establishing families and careers at the height of the post-war suburban boom, and hitting midlife during the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Now at the turn of the 21st century, they’re living in a high-tech, multicultural society marked by global trade, the Internet and worldwide geopolitical tensions.” In short, lives that encompass so much change have incredible breadth—nevertheless, the study is unusually consistent because the same questions were asked of these individuals again and again over the course of decades.
So what’s the key to generativity? Wink explains, “Generativity can’t exist unless you have the sense that you can make a difference. We’ve found that empathy and warmth are important, so that you can feel the suffering of others. And it’s equally important to have a desire to give and help. But what leads the way is a healthy sense of self that allows you to mobilize and act productively upon the world.”
Generativity is also linked to faith—both organized religion and a kind of autonomous spirituality that may take diverse forms. Wink compared the impact of traditional religion and a more eclectic, diffuse spirituality that might encompass meditation, Eastern religion and shamanism. Both score equally well for instilling generativity in people, but more traditionally religious individuals see altruism and giving as the natural outpouring of their faith, while for more eclectic spiritual seekers, generativity includes a desire to effect others or to pass on worthwhile skills and knowledge.
“The generativity of spiritual seekers,” says Wink, “includes a strong, self-expansive focus on making creative contributions that will effect others and endure beyond their lifetimes.”
But in the end, the why doesn’t matter so much as the act of giving, which not only benefits others, but boosts the health of those like Laura Goodall, who at age 80 is still living a rich, vital life. In the end, says Wink, “the thought [that] the way you
JILL NEIMARK is a journalist and co-author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People (whygoodthingshappen.com).