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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.

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