Gifting the Future

Glen Holland spent decades supporting his family, teaching high school music, and looking forward to finding time to work on the symphony he dreamed of composing. Time passed swiftly, and unanticipated obligations continuously interfered with his carefully laid plans to compose. It wasn't until the day of his retirement that he came to see it wasn't the symphony that was his life's work after all; his family, his students, and the many lives he touched in positive ways throughout the journey were his true opus.

Mr. Holland's Opus, a movie release in 1995, was a beautiful reflection of an important truth. Contributing to the well-being of others is a noble - and, according to recent studies, very necessary - choice in life. Tara L. Gruenewald, Ph.D., researcher and assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has made studying the act of giving to others - and its effects on how we age - her own life's work.

Gruenewald presented the results of her latest study at the 66th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in New Orleans last month. She found that more favorable perceptions of generativity were correlated with better aging outcomes. In this and several previous studies, Gruenewald and associates found that people who make a habit of contributing to others show lower rates of physical disability and loss of mobility, and in fact, live longer, than those who don't feel they'd made a useful contribution.

Simply put, generativity is the state of having concern for others and the future, and the effort of making a conscious contribution to the greater good. Those who strive to make such a contribution seem to enjoy better mental and physical health as they age.

The checks you write to your preferred charity and the time and services you volunteer to causes in which you believe are certainly valuable contributions to the greater good. But don't underestimate the power of more casual forms of giving - the random acts of kindness we commit every day, often without even knowing it. Smiling at a stranger who seems to be having a difficult day; holding the door for a fellow shopper; pausing to let a motorist make a difficult turn; offering a kind word to a harried mother; these small but meaningful gestures can change the course of another person's day for the better. Accumulated, that's a lot of joy spread around over the years.

"It is one of the most beautiful compensations in life," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "that no man can help another without helping himself." Gruenewald shared the reference at the end of her presentation, stating that it seems to reflect the consistent findings from her research. The act of giving makes us feel useful. Feeling useful triggers physiological processes that improve our health. Giving, therefore, seems to be an integral part of successful aging.

When you stop to think about it, you've been giving all your life. Perhaps this did not occur in ways you would consider strictly philanthropic, but then again, giving takes numerous forms. We gave nurturance and support to the children we raised, and those children grew into adults who will likewise give to the next generation. We gave of ourselves to our careers, mastering our crafts and mentoring younger workers who went on to become the masters who mentored the young. We took part in civic, religious, and social organizations, investing our time and effort into the future of the group and the well-being of its members. We contributed to others and to the future in countless ways, most of them - as in the case of Mr. Holland - simply through the act of living.

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