Foley Longitudinal Study of Adulthood (FLSA)

Begun in 2009, The Foley Longitudinal Study of Adulthood (FLSA) focuses on continuity and change in personality and well-being over time and on adults’ constructive engagements with society through parenting and grandparenting, religion, civic involvements, volunteer work and the like. Following up on the central message of McAdams’s 2006 book, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, a main theme in the study is the ways in which adults cope with the inevitable setbacks of middle adulthood and aging (e.g., losses, stress, declining health) and how suffering is sometimes transformed into opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment in life.

Because they are so labor-intensive and require long-term commitments of research energy and funding, long-term longitudinal studies are relatively rare in psychology and the social sciences. Yet data from longitudinal studies are universally viewed to be the gold standard for tracing psychological development over time. Among the handful of widely cited longitudinal studies of adult development and aging on the scene today are the University of California studies of birth cohorts from the 1920s (the Oakland Growth Study and the Berkeley Guidance Study), the Harvard longitudinal study of graduates from the early 1950s, the longitudinal study of Mills College graduates from the classes of 1958 and 1960, and the Baltimore Study of Aging. These studies have provided invaluable insights into adult mental health and have provided compelling evidence for the relative continuity of personality functioning across the adult life course. The studies also speak to personality change, but the longitudinal data here are more equivocal, in part because the measures used in these studies tend to be better designed to capture continuity than change. Furthermore, none of these longitudinal studies has examined the concepts that Northwestern’s Foley Center is best known for, such as the kinds of life stories that people construct to make meaning in their lives, the ways in which midlife adults express generativity (the desire to have a positive impact on the next generation) and various prosocial aspects of human functioning, such as leadership, civic engagement and religious participation.

FLSA is the first large-scale longitudinal study to focus explicitly on personality change, as well as continuity, in adulthood, on the development of people’s life stories over time, and on the development of generativity and other factors that link adults to their social worlds in caring and productive ways. The researchers are also paying special attention, to how adults in the study draw upon their personal and social resources to make sense of suffering and loss and how they use setbacks in life as opportunities for growth and the development of wisdom.

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