The purpose of this study was to examine felt obligation to help others within two domains (close others and society) as protective factors against losses in psychological well-being following functional decline and to examine differences by age. Results provided evidence in support of felt obligation to help society as a protective factor against losses in personal growth and self-acceptance, as well as felt obligation to help close others as a protective factor against losses in personal growth. Also, younger adults reported a smaller increase in negative affect following more severe function decline if they reported greater felt obligation to help close others and/or society.
This evidence for felt obligation to help others as a protective factor against losses in psychological well-being following greater functional decline supports expanded conceptualizations of ways in which social relationships can influence individuals’ psychological well-being. A longstanding body of work has addressed the mental health benefits of receiving others’ support, particularly during times of stress (Uchino, 2004
). Parallel to this area of research, a more recent body of scholarship has emerged regarding the potential mental health benefits of giving
support to others (e.g., Liang, Krause, & Bennett, 2001
; Thoits & Hewitt, 2001
). Findings from this study suggest the importance of continuing to examine ways in which aspects of altruism, such as felt obligation to help others, can promote psychological well-being not only among adults in general but also particularly among those adults confronting particular challenges, such as declining functional health (for other examples, see Brown, Brown, House, & Smith, 2008; Li & Ferraro, 2007; Greenfield & Marks, 2004).
Findings from qualitative studies on experiences of compassionate love provide insights on processes through which felt obligation can protect against losses in psychological well-being following functional decline, such as by encouraging individuals’ sense of connection and a universalistic orientation (Underwood, 2002
). Theorizing on how more behavioral aspects of altruism—such as formal volunteering—promote psychological well-being has largely addressed other, yet related, factors, including self-efficacy and self-esteem (Thoits & Hewitt, 2001
). Studies that employ more refined measures of various and theoretically informed aspects of altruism, as well as of psychosocial factors linking these aspects to psychological well-being, and that use data analytic techniques to model these factors as being related-yet-distinct from each other can help to better specify the complex causal pathways among various aspects of altruism, other psychosocial factors, functional health, and psychological well-being.
This study also tested for age differences in its focal associations. Results indicated that felt obligation to help close others and/or society served as stronger protective factors against increasing negative affect following functional decline among younger adults. This finding, in part, is consistent with classic developmental theorizing, which suggests that concern for the welfare of others—particularly concern for future generations—is particularly salient in midlife relative to earlier and later periods of the life course (e.g., Erikson, 1950
). Nevertheless, empirical evidence regarding the extent to which concern for others is most central in midlife has been mixed (see McAdams, 2001
, for a review). This study's finding of some age-associated differences in the protective effects of felt obligation to help others suggests continued focus on lifespan contexts that might alter ways in which functional decline and various dimensions of altruism are associated with psychological well-being. The finding of a weaker protective effect with increasing age, specifically in terms of negative affect and not personal growth or self-acceptance, suggests the importance of considering multiple dimensions of psychological well-being within lifespan research on altruism and well-being.
Despite this study's evidence for felt obligation to help others as a protective factor against losses in psychological well-being following functional decline, several of its features limit the extent to which conclusions can be drawn. First, this study draws on theorizing on compassionate love to specify processes through which felt obligation to help others might buffer against losses in psychological well-being following functional decline. Accordingly, additional studies that utilize direct measures of compassionate love (see Fehr & Sprecher, 2009
, for an example) are necessary to examine the extent to which aspects of compassionate love account for the protective effects found and to advance understanding of processes underlying these associations.
Also, because the measure of felt obligation was included only at the first wave of the survey, this study was not able to account for potentially dynamic changes in felt obligation, which might, in part, be a function of changes in psychological well-being and functional health. Similarly, because functional health was assessed only at the beginning and end of a 10-year interval, this study was unable to include a more nuanced measure of dynamic trajectories of functional limitations and psychological well-being. (The 10-year interval between measurement occasions might also help to account for the relatively small sizes of associations among functional decline, felt obligation to help others, and psychological well-being.) Overall, research that collects measures of functional health, felt obligation, and psychological well-being at multiple time points is necessary for better understanding the sequencing of causal processes linking these experiences. An additional limitation is the potential for nonrandom response at T1 of the survey, as well as nonrandom attrition across the 10-year study period, to bias estimates of population parameters (Acock, 2005).
Despite these limitations, this study suggests the importance of additional research on how felt obligation to help others and other aspects of altruism can protect against losses in psychological well-being following functional decline. For example, although previous research has identified predictors of aspects of altruism within the U.S. adult population as a whole (Smith, 2009
), studies are necessary to understand processes toward orientations to help others among individuals with impaired functional health. Additional studies are also necessary to identify the potentially complex processes through which felt obligation to help others promotes psychological well-being in the face of functional decline—particularly at diverse ages throughout adulthood. Advancing such understanding can help better inform efforts to optimize life quality among adults with functional impairments.