Why the Happiest People are Mentors

Is the mentor-mentee relationship equal?

I admit, I’ve sometimes wondered if mentorship is fully reciprocal. Yes, both members of the relationship can gain, but does the mentee gain more? Should the mentor think of mentorship as paying it forward? An indirect thank-you to her own past mentors instead of a current benefit in and of itself? Last week these doubts were bouncing around my head, which is why I was so interested to come across the Harvard-Grant study. It’s a massive study following a group of men for over 70 years, trying to determine who had successful, happy lives and why. The result: becoming a mentor is a key step in adult development that leads to happier, healthier humans. The scientific evidence suggests mentors gain just as much from mentorship as mentees.

What evidence?

The Harvard-Grant study started in 1938 and tracked a group of 268 Harvard students from college through death, over 75 years later. You may be wondering: is a study about young white Harvard men who turn into old white Harvard men relevant to my life? (The thought definitely crossed my mind.) Thankfully, scientists are realizing that scientifically sound studies examining humanity should probably incorporate more of humanity into their research populations. Unfortunately, other options are limited. Not many studies cover such a long period of human life, and each new study takes a long time to complete.

What do mentors gain?

The scientists running the study wanted to find out what makes a successful life. Originally, they thought that physical health would determine how successful you were in life (this was the 1930s after all). After looking for proof and not finding any, they began to think of adult development as stages of growth (At the time, people thought that after age 30 you were done developing!). During the teen years, people work to form their own identity separate from their parents. Next, they work on intimate relationships and consolidating careers. Afterwards, they turn to helping the next generation, an idea known as generativity coined by psychologist Erik Erikson in 1950. The study found that the men who had reached this stage of development, mentoring and building up the community, were much more successful in life than those who never did. They were happier, less likely to be depressed, and lived on average 8 years longer. The mentors of the group “were three times as likely to be enjoying their lives at eighty-five than men whose lives were still centered on themselves” (1).

So if you are a mentee worried about taking up your mentor’s time or feeling indebted, by all means be appreciative of your mentor. Be an active giver in the mentoring relationship. But try not to think of mentorship as a one-sided, taking relationship. I still feel grateful to the mentors who have helped me through some of the whirlwinds of professional development. But at its best, the mentoring relationship is actually fueling both participants.

And if you are a mentor, carry on. You might not be looking forward to a mentorship lunch after a particularly bad morning at the office, but there’s science that says you are on track to live longer, be happier, and reach fulfillment in life from your efforts.

Thanks to Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, by George E. Vaillant, for inspiration. It’s a great book detailing some of the crazy findings in the study, including if political beliefs at 20 are connected to sexual satisfaction at 80.

  1. The quotation above is from this book, page 179.

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