Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Calculate Your Life's Psychological Footprint

Your life's footprint leaves a lasting impression on your relationships.

From your closest relationships to your more distant connections, you are constantly affecting the people in your world. Your life footprint reflects the impact you have on the world. Although you may think of yourself as only a small player on the world stage, you may be surprised to learn that your impact can potentially spread to the farthest reaches of the planet.

Theories of development formerly contrasted nature vs. nurture, but researchers are showing, increasingly, the many combined effects of the two on how we grow and change through life. In addition, we now talk about the reciprocal influences that people have on their environments (Whitbourne & Whitbourne, 2014). In other words, the environment affects you, but you affect your environment. The life footprint reflects the part of the equation in which you affect your environment.

You’ve almost certainly heard of the notion of a carbon footprint, which is generally a negatively-framed phenomenon. When you use energy, no matter in what form, you’re leaving behind a trace that contributes overall to global pollution. Some people’s carbon footprints are heavier than others, particularly if they use large amounts of fossil fuel products. 

The life footprint, similarly, leaves behind a trace reflecting, in large part, how you relate to other people. You change the people around you by your actions, ways of relating to them, and decisions you make that affect their lives. The life footprint typically leaves more of a trace on people closest to you, but in some circumstances it might be just as large on a relative stranger as on your long-term partner. 

Perhaps you have what seems like a random conversation with a person you meet in a public place, like waiting in line for your daily morning coffee and bagel. You might casually exchange observations about which choices are healthier. Your fellow breakfast patron expresses surprise when you note how much sodium is contained in that breakfast sandwich she's about to order. She then decides to switch to a lower-sodium alternative and this decision, over the course of time, may prove beneficial to her overall well-being. Even though you never see her again, you’ve just increased your life footprint by having a measurable impact on her health.

The life footprint can, unfortunately, also be negative. You’re driving through town and take your eyes off the road for one second (not by texting, I hope). You fail to see the bicyclist coming behind you and accidentally swerve into him. The unfortunate mishap causes him to dislocate his shoulder, and now he’s in for months of painful surgery and rehabilitation. He may never have the same use of his shoulder again.

Obviously, we’d all like to maximize our positive life footprint so that, over time, we leave the world a better place than it was when we entered it. You can’t predict every single incident that might hurt or benefit someone, and if you think about it too much, you might very well become immobilized. However, by keeping your mind focused on your overall life goals, you can increase the chances of leaving traces behind that will improve the lives of others.

With this background, here’s a 10-item quiz that can give you a start in measuring your life footprint. Answer each question on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) scale:

  1. Other people thank me for the way I’ve helped them through difficult times.
  2. The work I do (at home or on the job) makes it possible for someone else to live a better life.
  3. A friend of a friend mentions that something I did made a difference in his or her life.
  4. I feel that I have something valuable that I can contribute to others, and I try to live my life to help make that happen.
  5. It’s important to me that the people in my family feel that I’m helping them.
  6. I later heard that a random conversation I had with someone led to that person’s achieving an important life goal.
  7. Without bragging, I think I can honestly say that my work or role in the family has a positive impact on others.
  8. When I think about my life goals, what matters more is the effect I have on others rather than getting material rewards.
  9. I’m conscious of the fact that what I do can and does leave a lasting impression on others.
  10. I can think of several instances in which my advice helped someone make a good decision.

I’ve created the items on this quiz to serve as a guide not only to the “heaviness” of your footprint, but also to stimulate you to think about the ways in which you’re contributing to the world through your relationships with others, your work, and the smaller and less obvious interactions you have. If you’ve scored close to 50, you are definitely on your way to leaving a heavy footprint. If not, by answering these questions, you can start to reframe the way you view your life’s efforts.

It’s extremely easy to feel helpless and isolated in our fast-paced and often impersonal society. Sociologists call this a feeling of “anomie,” or alienation. However, your life’s efforts, even though they may seem small to you, can carry significant weight.

You can also increase the life footprints of other people. When you are feeling down, frustrated, or disappointed, listening (and taking) the good advice of others helps them to feel that they are making a difference in the world. It can also make you feel better to know that though you may feel like a nobody, this positive response you show to others can have a measurable effect on their well-being. You don’t have to feel guilty about burdening people who are trying to help you because you’re also helping them.

What about that negative life footprint? Most of my questions were either neutral or positively-framed. Let’s focus now on the decisions you make that create problems for others. Perhaps the best way to keep your life footprint a positive one is to try your best to be conscious of your own potential to cause harm. Don’t take your eye off that wheel so that, to the best of your ability, you don’t accidentally injure someone else. Think about what you say before you inadvertently hurt someone else’s feelings through a carelessly rude remark. Keep your angry or spiteful emotions in check when someone or something makes you mad.

Living your life with the intention of creating a life footprint that helps others doesn’t necessarily require that you become preoccupied with this as a goal. Some of the people whose lives have created the heaviest, and most favorable, footprints were simply acting on their own inner motives toward self-actualization. Authors of inspiring literature, political figures who sought social equality, and researchers whose discovery paved the way toward curing diseases weren’t consciously trying to create a heavy life footprint.  

In this quiz, I focused mainly on the “near” experiences that you can measure more or less directly, going as far as the friend of a friend. I would encourage you to think back on times when your impact could have spread far wider than this.

Thinking about the effect you have on others can help you frame the way you view your life more positively, no matter what your specific situation. Even though you may feel like a very small player on a very large stage, the steps you take can and do leave a permanent impression on that stage.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014

Reference:

Whitbourne, S.K. & Whitbourne, S.B. (2014). Adult development: Biopsychosocial perspectives. Hoboken NJ: Wiley.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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