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Stockpiling joy

“Who am I now that the kids have left home?” I hear this question from nearly every new empty nest mom. After years of being the most important woman in your children’s lives, the center of their universe, you are suddenly retired from active mothering and left wondering what your purpose is.

Or, as Erma Bombeck so cleverly described it,

When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning

the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth,

or even the bottle of capless shampoo dribbling down the shower drain.

They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator.

It’s like being the vice president of the United States.

Can you relate?

What if I told you there’s a new mission for you, and, if you should choose to accept it, you have a three times greater likelihood of experiencing joy rather than despair 20 or 30 years from now? It's true. In midlife, we can embark on a lifestyle that allows us to stockpile joy for our senior years. The mission is simple: Practice generativity.

Download this phone wallpaper for an instant reminder about practicing generativity.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, an almost 80-year-old longitudinal study on how people can construct lives of meaning and happiness, found that people who develop a practice of generativity early on experience a greater sense of purpose and meaning in midlife and dramatically increase their level of joy in old age.

But what is generativity? George Vaillant, longtime director of the Harvard study on adult development defined it this way: “. . . to be in relationships where one ‘cares’ for those younger than oneself and, simultaneously, respects the autonomy of others." Generativity is investing in a younger generation without demanding investment back from them or even expecting them to agree with or follow your advice.

Author Michael Gurian uses the word eldering to describe investment in the younger generation: "'To elder' is now a verb for us, an accumulation of character, actions of being, and a spiritual quest that distinguishes us from younger people, especially if we actively connect with those younger people."

From a practical standpoint, I have learned that a key practice of generativity is giving up the control that Vaillant talks about in his definition. It took me a while to figure this out, but I found that my ability to influence my adult kids increased when I didn’t demand or dictate, but rather listened, asked open-ended questions, and offered opinions only when asked.

But I don’t limit my practice of generativity to my own kids and grandkids—they live too far away and I know I need at least a weekly opportunity to invest in the younger generation in order to thrive. I look for opportunities to practice it in my community.

In my case, that is the military community, where there is no shortage of younger people who appreciate the opportunity to build a relationship with an older adult. Many of them are far from home and family, and I am often the same age as their parents, so I can fill a small piece of that void in their lives. In return, I feel needed and appreciated—win-win!

How about you? Can you identify some younger people in your life that you could invest in? Pray about it and make a list, then check back next week for some practical ideas on how to practice generativity and stockpile joy for the future!

Download this phone wallpaper for an instant reminder about practicing generativity.

Want to dive deep on this topic? Check out the book Aging Well by George Vaillant for a wealth of information on growing old but living well, and read Michael Gurian's The Wonder of Aging for a positive look at the possibilities for personal growth in your fifties and beyond.


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