In a new study, researchers discovered an active social life lessens the decline in well-being that people often experience in later life years, despite medical or physical issues.
“Our results indicate that living a socially active life and prioritizing social goals are associated with higher late-life satisfaction and less severe declines toward the end of life,” said study lead author Denis Gerstorf, Ph.D., of Humboldt University in Germany.
The research appears in the journal Psychology and Aging.
Gerstorf and his colleagues analyzed data from over 2,900 now deceased participants in the nationwide German Socio-Economic Panel Study (48 percent women, average age at death 74).
The German SOEP is a nationally representative annual longitudinal survey of approximately 30,000 adult residents in former West Germany from 1984 to 2013 and former East Germany from 1990 to 2013.
Participants in the SOEP provide information annually on household composition, employment, occupations, earnings, health, and satisfaction indicators.
In this study, the researchers compared well-being to participation in social activities, social goals, and family goals. They measured participant answers to questions such as, “How satisfied are you with your life concurrently, all things considered?” “How important is it to participate in social or political activities?” and “How much do you value your marriage or relationships with your children?”
The research team, including scholars from Arizona State University, Cornell University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of British Columbia, found that being socially active and having social goals were associated with higher well-being late in life. However, family goals were not associated with well-being during the later stages of life.
This association was independent or not associated with other relevant variables including age at death, gender, education as well as key health indicators (e.g., disability, hospital stays).
Researchers also discovered that while low social participation and lack of social goals independently were associated with lower levels of well-being, when combined they each magnified the other’s effect. That is, the effect of not having social goals and not participating in social activities lead to pronounced life dissatisfaction.
Valuing and pursuing social goals may contribute to well-being by boosting feelings of competence, concern for the next generation and belonging, said Gerstorf.
Moreover, researchers found that investing one’s remaining physical and psychological resources into socially oriented activities can be advantageous at a variety of levels.
For example, social activity boosts well-being directly by carrying out joyful activities or indirectly by facilitating self-esteem and a sense of control. Additionally, carrying out a social activity can promote physical and cognitive functioning.
“A socially engaged lifestyle often involves cognitive stimulation and physical activity, which in turn may protect against the neurological and physical factors underlying cognitive decline,” said Dr. Gert Wagner of the German Institute for Economic Research, one of the co-authors.
“Our results indicate that social orientation is related to maintaining well-being for as long as possible into the very last years of life.”
As to why family-oriented goals did not appear to lessen the decline in well-being, Gerstorf said it may have to do with the complexity of family relationships later in life, but more research would be required to determine it.
“Family life is often a mixed bag and represents not only a source of joy, but also of worry and tensions, stress, and sorrow. For example, valuing one’s partner often makes people vulnerable to declines in well-being when the partner suffers from cognitive or physical limitations,” said Gerstorf.
“Similarly, relationships with adult children can be ambivalent, especially when children differ in values and have not attained (in the eyes of their parents) educational and interpersonal success.”