Date of Award

Fall 2019

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Psychology, PhD

Program

School of Social Science, Politics, and Evaluation

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Jeanne Nakamura

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Jason T. Siegel

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Anne Colby

Terms of Use & License Information

Terms of Use for work posted in Scholarship@Claremont.

Rights Information

© Copyright 2019 Laura E. Graham

Abstract

Contemporary theories consider development to be lifelong, suggesting that although aging entails considerable loss, there is still potential to grow and to remain engaged in meaningful activities. Narrative studies have revealed a host of benefits for narrating one’s life story with themes of growth and have found evidence of growth themes in personal narratives of older adults. Yet there is limited research focusing on specific experiences that elicit growth or development in older age. A significant portion of aging individuals engage in prosocial behavior, and empirical research using scales to measure well-being outcomes have revealed important benefits, but have overlooked how older adults narrate such experiences and the impact they have on the self. The current study uses a narrative perspective to examine the perceived personal impact of prosocial behavior, and explores when prosocial experiences can facilitate personal growth. Interviews from a sample of 47 older adults engaged in long-term prosocial commitments were analyzed to examine the impact of these behaviors on the self as well as patterns in high points and low points of the experience. Narrative analysis revealed the majority of participants reported a change in the self, and half of the sample used themes of personal growth to characterize the self-impact. Inductive coding of change narratives revealed an emergent category of virtuous change (e.g., transcendence, wisdom, humanity), as well as other changes such as hard skills, cognitive abilities, a sense of empowerment and happiness, validation, and negative changes. The high-point stories were primarily about beneficiaries of the prosocial behavior; whereas low points focused on both external support issues and program inner workings but less on beneficiary stories. The stories told by those who grew were significantly more integrated than the stories of those who did not, displaying a multifaceted, complex understanding of significant episodes through a blend of both positive and negative elements within one story. Findings from this study suggest that an integrated understanding of the peaks and valleys of prosocial experiences may provide an avenue toward personal growth. Future narrative research can apply this approach across domains to understand the nuances of growth in later life from specific experiences. A better understanding of what growth from doing good looks like can inform individuals and society about how to maximize the benefits of prosocial behavior.

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