According to the activity theory of aging, successful aging occurs when older adults remain active and maintain social interactions.
It believes that keeping older people socially active delays the aging process and improves their quality of life.
Examples of activity theory of aging include encouraging aging people to continue to go to church groups, go on group holidays, and even find a new romantic interest if they are widowed.
Activity Theory of Aging Definition
Robert J. Havighurst developed the activity theory in the 1960s. Together with disengagement theory and continuity theory It is one of three key psychosocial theories explaining how people develop in old age.
The theory was developed by Robert J. Havighurst, an academic, educator, and scholar of aging, in 1961.
His theory opposed the recently published disengagement theory of aging by Elaine Cumming and William Henry.
The disengagement theory claims that:
“aging is an inevitable, mutual withdrawal or disengagement, resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social system he belongs to.” (Cumming & Henry, 1961, p.14)
Havighurst saw things differently; happiness for older people was dependent on the active maintenance of personal relationships and ventures.
How does activity theory work?
Activities help older people replace lost life roles, especially when they are meaningful and fulfilling. In this way, they resist the social pressures that restrict an older person’s world. As Loue et al. (2008) argue:
“According to the activity theory (also referred to as the implicit theory of aging, normal theory of aging, and lay theory of aging), there is a positive relationship between a person’s level of activity and life satisfaction, which in turn increases how positively one person views himself or herself (self-concept) and improves adjustment in later life” (Loue et al., 2008, p.79).
Essentially, activity theory claims that “the more one does, the better they’ll age”.
Examples of activity theory of aging
Below we discuss various ways—some of which very familiar—in which older people maintain social interactions and activities they had in the past, thus leading a happier and engaged life.
- Engaging in further education – Older/retired people engaging in further education—e.g., completing a UG degree, learning photography, or picking up a foreign language—to hone their intellectual skills and socialize.
- Maintaining social interactions – This can include dancing, singing, or outings with friends and relatives.
- Going on holidays – going on holidays overseas with friends or with a travel company can help people to remain active.
- Dating – Using senior dating apps or websites to find a new mate after widowhood or late divorce.
- Staying professionally active – A retired doctor who previously worked in the public health sector, continuing being professionally active as a freelance private doctor.
- Starting new hobbies – Taking up new hobbies after retirement, such as gardening, brewing, beekeeping, or woodworking.
- Volunteering – Retired people participating in civil society or retired & senior volunteer programs related to the environment or vulnerable social groups to see the social impact of their actions.
- Remaining physically active through gym classes (e.g., yoga) or individual sports (e.g., swimming) to improve their well-being.
- Remaining sexually active – This helps older people derive self-worth and feel they’re respected by their friends (Penhollow et al., 2009).
- Social events in care homes – Care homes implementing a range of social activities (such as board games, singing, movie nights) to engage residents and help them feel happy (Winstead et al., 2014).
The first two case studies discussed below address why people remaining active beyond middle age are likely to lead happier lives. The two following examples show how older people replacing lost roles are likely to age more successfully.
1. Further education for older adults
Many governments across the world have implemented interventions and social programs to provide older people with free or affordable access to further education.
Further education ranges from undergraduate or postgraduate degrees, vocational qualifications, crafts (e.g., pottery), to wellbeing programs (e.g., yoga).
Older people engaging in further education experience multiple benefits. Older adult learners report greater life satisfaction and lower levels of social isolation compared with non-participants (Winstead et al., 2014).
Participation in further education and related social and productive activities is positively related to improved well-being.
Simply put, staying active makes older people lead a happier life.
2. Senior physical activity helps people age better
Research shows that “activity participation is essential to the wellbeing of aging adults” (Zimmer & Lin, 1996).
This is because older people experience a range of losses, like getting retired, losing their partner, or mobility loss. This may result in identity loss, feelings of shame, and isolation (Loue et al., 2008, p.80)
In turn, participating in physical activities well-suited for their fitness levels—like swimming, walking, golf, or others—has a significant and positive impact on older people’s mental health.
It can partially fill the gap left by other activities and help older people socialize. It can, therefore, improve their mood, reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, and lead to a more balanced lifestyle.
3. The benefits of post-retirement work
Most of us have a relative or acquaintance who did not leave the job market after getting retired.
The activity theory of aging suggests that remaining professionally active has multiple benefits for older people, like:
- topping up their income and supporting other family members in need,
- staying mentally active, and
- maintaining social relationships
All three benefits, mean that older people continue to derive self-worth and social recognition through work.
Working also gives older people a sense of identity and purpose. Therefore, it can help older adults remain happier.
4. Finding a new mate in later life
Many older people find themselves alone, whether they’re divorced, bereaved, or single for a longer/shorter period of time.
At this stage of life, people are more likely to crave closeness and companionship.
They often decide that it’s not too late to find a partner. Using senior dating applications or websites or joining a book club or local choir are helpful in this respect.
According to activity theory, replacing one’s lost partner with a new one can improve older people’s life satisfaction.
That’s because emotional intimacy will help them establish meaningful connection and communication with a significant other and, thus, avoid feelings of loneliness.
Strengths and Criticisms of Activity Theory of Aging
Five decades after its conception, the activity theory of aging remains a relevant and helpful psychosocial theory explaining how people develop in old age.
It has been widely used in gerontological and psychological research. Most scholars would agree that the activity model is more accurate and helpful than disengagement theory and, ultimately, helpful for the community (Verena, 2004).
Furthermore, it has successfully informed policy and practice. For example, governments and third-sector organizations have recognized that continuous (social, physical, etc.) activity leads to successful aging.
As Loue et al. (2008, p.80) explain, replacing lost roles and remaining socially active is not always easy to achieve.
The key criticisms of activity theory of aging are:
- It overlooks inequality. Older people from lower social classes and/or disadvantaged backgrounds might not have the ability to stay socially active. For example, they might not have the social capital (professional networks, friends, children) or financial resources to achieve this.
- It assumes older adults are a homogeneous group. Older people are a heterogeneous demographic group. For example, perceived life satisfaction from remaining socially active differs between men and women (Zimmer & Lin, 1996). Also, some older adults may simply not want to engage in new endeavors. Or they may enjoy solitary activities more.
- It overlooks age discrimination in employment. Studies show that older people looking for work are often discriminated against for their age. Relatedly, they might struggle to develop new skills in an ever-changing and technology-driven environment.
- Being busy is not enough. Policymakers designing interventions for the elderly adopted an activity theory. But filling older people’s schedules with activities and tasks does not suffice to improve their well-being. To age better, people need to engage in activities that they find fulfilling and meaningful—which is very subjective.
- It neglects limitations to staying active. Older adults are often deterred from participating in social activities by physical or mental impairments or other forms of disability.
Before applying or dismissing the activity theory of aging, keep in mind that no single theory can explain all aspects of aging.
Rather, several theories can be combined to explain different aspects of the complex phenomenon known as aging.
The activity theory of aging, first proposed by Robert Havighurst in 1961, posits that older adults maintain optimal wellbeing and aging rates when they can continue performing productive activities and engaging in fulfilling relationships.
In contrast to the pessimism of the disengagement theory of aging, it assumes that there is a positive relationship between older people’s perceived life satisfaction and their participation in social activities.
Activity theory is plausible and has been influential in gerontology, psychology, and sociology.
But it hasn’t been immune from criticism, especially for its blanket approach to older adults, and its non-consideration of physical and social barriers preventing older people from maintaining social interactions.
Bengtson, V. L., & Schaie, K. W. (Eds.). (1999). Handbook of theories of aging. New York: Springer.
Knapp MR (1977) The activity theory of aging: an examination in the English context. Gerontologist 17(6):553–559
Lai, D. W. L.; Qin, N. (2018). Extraversion personality, perceived health and activity participation among community-dwelling aging adults in Hong Kong. PLOS ONE. 13 (12).
Loue, S., Sajatovic, M. and Koroukian, S.M. (2008). Encyclopedia of aging and public health. New York: Springer.
Penhollow, T.M., Young, M. and Denny, G. (2009). Predictors of Quality of Life, Sexual Intercourse, and Sexual Satisfaction among Active Older Adults. American Journal of Health Education, 40(1), pp.14–22.
Verena H.M. (2003) The Relation Between Everyday Activities and Successful Aging: A 6-Year Longitudinal Study, The Journals of Gerontology, 58, no. 2, pp. 74–S82.
Bottom of Form
Winstead V., Yost E.A., Cotten S.R., Berkowsky R.W., & Anderson W.A. (2014). The impact of activity interventions on the well-being of older adults in continuing care communities. J Appl Gerontol. 33 (7), pp. 888-911.
Zimmer Z., Lin H.S. (1996). Leisure activity and well-being among the elderly in Taiwan: Testing hypotheses in an Asian setting. J Cross Cult Gerontol. 11(2), pp.167-86.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]