Societally-engaged adults see their lives as redemption stories

Middle-aged Americans who show high levels of societal involvement and mental health are especially likely to construe their lives as stories of personal redemption, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Previous research has shown that adults who are inclined toward generativity — the concern for and commitment to promoting the growth and well-being of future generations — are more likely to engage in a wide range of prosocial behaviors, including positive parenting styles, political participation, and community volunteerism.

But a strong commitment to generativity can be difficult to sustain in the long run and in the face of life’s many challenges. Therefore, highly generative adults may need to call upon a particular kind of personal story to support their generative efforts.

Psychological scientists Dan McAdams and Jen Guo of Northwestern University hypothesized that constructing a redemption narrative about one’s life, which centers on a personal mission to transform suffering into positive outcomes, might function as a psychological resource for generative adults. Redemption stories sustain hope that sacrifices and suffering today may produce positive dividends in the future, helping generative adults to persevere in their commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations.

McAdams and Guo conducted intensive 2-3-hour interviews with 157 adults ages 55 to 57, asking them to think about their lives as if they were a novel, with chapters, key scenes, characters, and themes. Each participant was asked about particular points in their life stories, including their happiest and least happy moments, a marked turning point, positive and negative early memories, a vivid adult memory, an experience of wisdom, and what the next chapter in life will bring.

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