Does Activity Increase the Happiness of Older Adults?

An earlier version of this post was published at Life Assays on April 24, 2011.

On April 9, I attended the Carolinas Psychology Conference, a venue for undergraduate psychology students to present research that they’ve done. We had four students from our program at Methodist University who were presenters. Learning research methods is an important part of an undergraduate education in Psychology. The studies may lack some of the rigor of published research, but they often do address interesting issues and provoke reflection regarding the findings.

One of the presentations I saw was on the relationship between busyness and happiness. The student who presented was Alexander Rodgers, from North Carolina State University; the sponsoring faculty member was Shevaun Neupert. College students (aged 18-24) and older adults (aged 60-92) rated their level of busyness and feelings of happiness over 8 consecutive days. For the young adults, there was no relationship between self-reported busyness and happiness. For the older adults, though, higher levels of busyness were associated with greater happiness. The researchers looked at factors that might have explained the relationship. It couldn’t be accounted for by the participant’s tiredness or by the number of physical ailments they had. Older participants gave higher ratings overall on the item, “I spend my time doing what I want,” but there was no relationship between that item and happiness.

All of the adults had been recruited at senior centers or retirement communities; none were working. I suspect that busyness wouldn’t be associated with happiness in a sample of working older adults. I know at least a couple of employed older adults whose employment keeps them quite busy and who are dissatisfied when they compare themselves to age-mates with more opportunities for leisure. I’m not surprised that, once older adults retire, there isn’t a relationship between doing what one wants and happiness. I would imagine that most retirees have the leeway to do as they please, so the correlation with happiness would be attenuated.

What might produce the association between busyness and happiness in retirees, though? Since the finding is correlational, we can’t be certain that it’s the increased activity that causes happiness. The causal relationship could be reversed (happy people get involved in more activities), or some other factor, such as self-efficacy or the size of one’s social network, might influence both busyness and happiness. One possible reason for the association is that a sense of purpose might result both in an increased activity level and more life satisfaction. It’s known that retirees who have planned out what activities they will engage in after leaving the workforce make a more successful adjustment than those who don’t make such plans. I’m always struck by how busy most of the retirees I know are. The ones who are volunteering their time at church or for community organizations seem particularly fulfilled. My parents volunteered quite a bit for about fifteen years after retirement, and they were quite happy then. Even a few years ago, my dad seemed quite satisfied when he was able to play the piano for nursing home residents or speak to elementary school classes about World War II. When both of my parents became homebound, they seemed less happy.

My mom has been devoting herself to caring for my dad for the last several months. This was hard for her at first, but more recently she’s found satisfaction in the knowledge that she is making a difference in his life. Research has found a relationship between helping others and happiness. The student study didn’t try to parcel out the sorts of activities that the older adults were engaged in; I wonder whether it is particularly those busy contributing to the welfare of others who are happiest. That would be fitting; for altruistic elders, doing good would be its own reward.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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