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Dr Edward Hoffman

Living Positively

Mentoring and the positive role it plays - Dr Edward Hoffman

People involved in helping others are seen to have overall greater happiness

 "A good teacher must know how to arouse the interest of the pupil in the field of study for which he is responsible. He must himself be a master in the field of study and be in touch with the latest developments in the subject. He must himself be a fellow traveler in the exciting pursuit of knowledge,” offered Indian statesman and philosopher Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. Certainly, Dr Radhakrishan’s comment is applicable to the broader issue of mentoring:  

That is, effectively guiding younger people to lead meaningful, productive lives. It’s a topic gaining increasing attention in positive psychology today.  Scientific evidence shows that mentoring brings considerable benefits to those engaged in this activity. Research is shifting from a focus on how the mentoring relationship benefits mentees (such as by teaching technical skills, helping in career networking, and building self-confidence) to its mental and even physical advantages for mentors.

 In psychological terms mentoring is based on psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s concept of generativity, first introduced in Childhood and society, published in 1950. In this landmark book, Erikson presented eight stages of human development - from infancy through old age; each stage presented a specific task or challenge for individual growth.

He associated midlife — the long seventh stage — with that of generativity: Concern and guidance of future generations. Erikson described parenthood as the chief arena of generativity for most adults around the world. Yet he insightfully argued that not all parents devote all their generative energies to their own children, and that generativity is eminently possible without parenthood. In other words, the key issue is supportive involvement with younger persons for societal benefit.

The themes of midlife challenges and crises later gained popular appeal through best-selling books and popular movies, and also generated new research. For example, Dr John Kotre, a former Jesuit seminarian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, amplified Erikson’s work by identifying four different types of generativity. These encompass: 1) The biological, involving begetting, bearing, and nursing one’s infant; 2) The parental, concerned with child discipline and the transmission of family traditions; 3) The technical, consumed with teaching practical skills; and 4) The cultural, focusing on transmitting values, such as autonomy or religiosity, prized by the particular culture. Kotre also questioned some of Erikson’s assumptions, such as whether generative impulses are confined to midlife. Indeed, some psychologists today argue that even teenagers can enjoy sharing their skills with younger persons –  and benefit by doing so.

More recently, Dr Dan McAdams at Northwestern University and his colleagues have been investigating why middle-aged people differ from one another in their degree of generativity. For while some men and women eagerly nurture younger persons —  whether informally or organizationally — others are indifferent or even hostile to mentoring. They’d much rather watch a TV show or sports match then devote time and energy to youthful learners or career fledglings.

What accounts for such striking differences? As you might suspect, a lot has to do with our particular role-models as we mature into adulthood. If we’re lucky enough to have socially-involved parents, as well as inspiring teachers and personal mentors, then we’re more likely to embrace generativity in our own adult lives. Certainly, this was true for me, as my parents were dedicated school-teachers and concerned with contributing to a better world. Not surprisingly, people with high generativity are more involved in civic, political, and religious activities. As parents, they’re also more likely to emphasize the importance of imparting values and wisdom as part of their responsibility, and they’re also happier than their more socially aloof contemporaries. All in all, quite a good combination! 

To begin mentoring, it’s important to have a positive attitude. But it’s also helpful to follow these guidelines to maximize your effectiveness. 1) Choose an activity that truly reflects your personal interests, whether professional or not. This will help minimize burnout. 2) Keep a realistic perspective. No relationship is perfect, so expect occasional snags between you and your mentee.  3) To best promote your mentee’s growth, foster self decision-making rather than dependence. 4) Be an active listener. Allow your mentee to offer fresh ideas and methods in your work together. You’ll both benefit from such exchanges.                                                                                    

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org