How You Tell Your Own Story Affects Mental Health


Concern or activity that cultivates the growth and well-being of coming generations is called generativity or generative thinking.

Research and life experience tells us that generative thinking is not only good for the welfare of society, but also for individual mental health.

People engaged in generativity tend to participate in more prosocial behaviors such as political activities, volunteering and positive parenting. However, this type of energy and activity is hard to maintain through life’s ups and downs.

It might be that generative thinkers depend on certain types of personal stories – stories of redemption – to keep their generative engines going.

Stories We Tell Our Self

To see whether generativity might be sustained by developing redemptive stories about one’s life, a couple scientists at Northwestern University set up an experiment. They gave extensive interviews to adults aged 55 to 57 to determine whether and how much redemption was part of their own life story.

Anyone who has read novels or watched movies is familiar with the redemptive story line:

  1. The main character (protagonist) has early life advantages.
  2. The protagonist becomes aware the world is a harsh place where people suffer.
  3. The protagonist develops a set of moral beliefs.
  4. The beliefs fuel the protagonist's prosocial behaviors.
  5. Along the way, the protagonist goes through misfortunes that typically lead to positive, redemptive outcomes.

The researchers found that the study participants most concerned about the well-being of future generations were also more likely to spin their own life stories with threads of redemption.

Having a redemptive view of one’s life was also associated with better overall mental health and personal well-being.

Whatever Is Yours To Give

It seems certain that psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) would not be surprised by today’s research on generativity. According to Erikson, generativity is a sign of healthy maturity in adults aged 40 to 65 years of age. Without generativity, life stagnates.

Erikson considered generativity the ability to be concerned for others, particularly the next generation. This includes parenting, but more broadly is about finding a way to support humanity's future.

“A person does his best at this time to put aside thoughts of death and balance its certainty with the only happiness that is lasting: to increase, by whatever is yours to give, the goodwill and higher order in your sector of the world,” wrote Erikson.

One For All

Generative thinking may promote mental and physical well-being because it reflects the underlying unity or oneness of humanity. When we put energy into the welfare of others, we are also caring for our self. When we respect and nurture our unique talents, we can put energy into the welfare of others; and so it goes.

“Generative thinking can inspire us to work within a vision for culture that is expressed in centuries and millennia rather than quarters, seasons, or fashions.”
~ Makoto Fuijmura, On Becoming Generative

Sources:; Science Daily
Photo credit: Steve Janosik / flickr creative commons


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