What is the Meaning of Legacy and Why Do You Want to Leave One?

What is the Meaning of Legacy?

Have you ever thought what you want on your tombstone? Or wondered what gives you the drive to hustle? Are you the benevolent type, but still have enough ego that you want to be remembered for all the good you did in the world? There are many forces that help drive us to pursue, and the desire to leave a legacy is one of the strongest.

This inherent drive to leave a legacy can manifest in a range of ways: from a desire to have children to wanting to lead a visionary movement that transforms a society. Although the manifestation of the process might differ between individuals, most of us seem to have a desire to create a legacy — to leave something behind when we go. Our desire for legacy can be biological, material, and/or it can be expressed as our values and hard-won knowledge that we pass on to family and friends (Hunter & Rowles, 2005).

What is the Meaning of Legacy?

The word legacy comes from a Latin word legatus, translated as ‘embassador, envoy, deputy.’ In the late 14th century, an old French word legacie was used to describe a body of persons sent on a mission. We can therefore look at legacy metaphorically that when we create a legacy, what we are really doing is appointing our spokesperson for the future. Most of us —  either explicit or unknowingly — have a desire for either symbolic or literal immortality (i.e. literal immortality is some belief that there is an afterlife). This seems especially strong in those of us that understand death is inevitable (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013). Our legacy, if adequately left, transcends the realms of our physical life and brings symbolic immortality.

As our awareness of mortality grows, it brings into focus internal concerns and questions about why we exist. For many, this quest for purpose begins once we realize that the opportunity to leave our mark is finite. For others, this realization can lead fear — a threat to one’s sense of self that we will likely soon be forgotten. Thus, people try to negotiate what us scientists call ‘mortality salience’ in different ways (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013). When reminded of our impending death, we often look for ways to transcend that feeling and employ different psychological mechanisms to reach symbolic immortality. For instance, we are compelled to connect with influential social groups, because a group’s existence generally transcends the existence of a single individual. Furthermore, groups also bolster our self-esteem and nurture our belief that the world meets the standards and values within our worldview — a rationalization that everything will end well. This has been explored in depth by Terror Management Theory or TMT, which was proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski and Sheldon Solomon (1986).

To create legacy some of us — I fall into the category —turn to our creative side. By introducing new ideas, designs, novel products and original solutions into our current reality we possess the potential to influence societies (and dare I say the world) in a way that will outlive ourselves. Studies have shown that creativity is often used as a force of legacy, especially when the expression of creativity is socially valued — after all, we love our friends… our peers… our ‘tribes’ and most of us either explicitly or secretly want their recognition (Sligte, Nijstad, & De Dreu, 2013).

Why Do You Want to Leave a Legacy?

The crux of legacy is that we look for ways to be existentially reassured our life mattered. We bargain with death as we go through the psychological cycle of grieving our inevitable non-existence (Ross, 1969). We want to leave a legacy because before we can psychologically accept the reality of our own physical annihilation, we put up one hell of a fight. Science suggests a desire to leave something behind when we pass naturally increases as we age (Newton, Herr, Pollack, & McAdams, 2013). Those of us that have had long and productive careers seem to be challenged the most by the process of aging (Wexler & Long, 2009). Intuitively this makes sense; if you worked hard all your life — inevitably making personal sacrifices along the way — you want to believe your life amounted to something in the eyes’ of others because you will not be around to tell your story. You want some recognition for living a dedicated life. Again, various studies suggest the closer to death we get, the more we crave this immortality. A study of women that were faced with a life-threatening illness showed that all subjects consciously started the process of legacy transmission (Hunt, 2007), which could be interpreted that legacy closely links with our relationship to death and mortality.

Many authors also think that the wish to create a legacy is connected both with generativity and narcissism (Newton, Herr, Pollack, & McAdams, 2013). Generativity is a psychological concept, usually regarded as a positive one — generativity often emerges in midlife and can be connected with parenthood or other social roles, such as mentoring. Erikson (1974) defined it as “…the establishment, the guidance, and the enrichment of the living generation and the world it inherits.” Erikson viewed it as a concept that is often focused on the next generation and an inherent individual care for its well-being. Narcissism, on the other hand, is usually viewed as a more negative concept (though there is a distinction between normal and pathological narcissism). Generativity is focused on others, while the concept of narcissism focuses on one self. We could therefore conclude that wanting to leave a legacy on some level is associated with narcissism since you do not need to be remembered to help society. It appears that legacy is likely a combination of both selflessness and narcissism (Rubinstein, 1996).

Many people indeed associate a need for legacy with ego; an act of ego beyond death. In contrast, the desire to selflessly change the world is viewed as more altruistic in nature — those that do things anonymously and do not wish to be recognized for it. Nonetheless, some point out that legacy has the potential to go beyond the ego and be weighted in altruism. It can surpass cultural constraints and become a broader aspect of human development that is a psychological driver of greater good (Hunt, 2007).

One thing about legacy that science seems to agree on is that this desire is somewhat universally seeded in us. Since it is often connected with having children and passing either goods, values, knowledge and/or wisdom onto them, being childless can (in some people) create a feeling of despair and/or sadness as they feel they are no outlets to leave a legacy (Rubinstein, 1996). It was observed that some childless women looked for other ways to meaningfully influence and support others (e.g. family members, community), or alternatively they wanted to create a legacy that related to the whole human species. This desire can sometimes drive very old people to participate in, for example, antinuclear protests even if building more nuclear power plants probably isn’t going to influence them anymore. Some studies show that older people, it can be more important to pass on values and beliefs than material possessions (Hunter, 2007). It is clear that legacy means different things to different people, but that for most of us it is the pursuit of symbolic immortality that drives us.


Sources & further reading:

Erikson, E. H. (1974). Dimensions of a new identity. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Hunter, E. G. (2007). Beyond death: inheriting the past and giving to the future, transmitting the legacy of one’s self. Omega, 56(4), 313-329.

Hunter, E. G., & Rowles, G. D. (2005). Leaving a legacy: Toward a typology. Journal of Aging Studies, 19, 327–347.

Kübler Ross (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner Classics.

Newton, N., Herr, J., Pollack, J., & McAdams, D. (2013). Selfless or Selfish? Generativity and Narcissism as Components of Legacy. Journal Of Adult Development, 21(1), 59-68.

Rubinstein, R. (1996). Childlessness, legacy, and generativity. Generations, 20(3), 58.

Sligte, D., Nijstad, B., & De Dreu, C. (2013). Leaving a Legacy Neutralizes Negative Effects of Death Anxiety on Creativity. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(9), 1152-1163.

Wexler, G., & Long, L. (2009). Lifetimes and Legacies: Mortality, Immortality, and the Needs of Aging and Dying Donors. The American Archivist, (2). 478.