Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

A critical review of the literature on social and leisure activity and wellbeing in later life


An engaged lifestyle is seen as an important component of successful ageing. Many older adults with high participation in social and leisure activities report positive wellbeing, a fact that fuelled the original activity theory and that continues to influence researchers, theorists and practitioners. This study's purpose is to review the conceptualisation and measurement of activity among older adults and the associations reported in the gerontological literature between specific dimensions of activity and wellbeing. We searched published studies that focused on social and leisure activity and wellbeing, and found 42 studies in 44 articles published between 1995 and 2009. They reported from one to 13 activity domains, the majority reporting two or three, such as informal, formal and solitary, or productive versus leisure. Domains associated with subjective wellbeing, health or survival included social, leisure, productive, physical, intellectual, service and solitary activities. Informal social activity has accumulated the most evidence of an influence on wellbeing. Individual descriptors such as gender or physical functioning sometimes moderate these associations, while contextual variables such as choice, meaning or perceived quality play intervening roles. Differences in definitions and measurement make it difficult to draw inferences about this body of evidence on the associations between activity and wellbeing. Activity theory serves as shorthand for these associations, but gerontology must better integrate developmental and psychological constructs into a refined, comprehensive activity theory.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Kathryn Betts Adams, Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH 44106, USA. E-mail:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

P. B. Baltes and M. M. Baltes 1990. Psychological perspectives on successful aging: the model of selective optimization with compensation. In P. B. Baltes and M. M. Baltes (eds), Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. Cambridge University Press, New York, 134.

* M. P. Lawton , M. S. Moss , L. Winter and C. Hoffman 2002. Motivation in later life: personal projects and well-being. Psychology and Aging, 17, 4, 539–47.

* M. Werngren-Elgstrom , A. Brandt and S. Iwarsson 2006. Everyday activities and social contacts among older deaf sign language users: relationships to health and well-being. Occupational Therapy International, 13, 4, 207–23.

* A. Zimmer and H. S. Lin 1996. Leisure activity and well-being among the elderly in Taiwan: testing hypotheses in an Asian setting. Journal of Cross-cultural Gerontology, 11, 2, 167–86.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 70
Total number of PDF views: 614 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1725 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th July 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.