Activity theory predicts that more frequent social interaction and engagement in society will lead people to attain greater life satisfaction, enhanced self-image, and positive adjustment in old age. By remaining active, elders retain the capability of enhancing both their physical and psychological well-being. According to many activity theorists, the interests of society tend to be antagonistic to those of the elderly. Ageism, or negative stereotypes based on one’s age, is a barrier to a more integrated society between younger and older people. Institutionalized forms of exclusion based on age are also a formal means of discouraging the elderly from actively participating in society. These obstacles tend to induce withdrawal from society by people as they advance into old age. Activity theorists contend that by remaining active and resisting this tendency to enter isolation, older members of society can live happier and healthier lives.
Activity in old age can take place in multiple forms. Informal activity would be engagement with relatives, neighbors, friends, or other acquaintances, while formal activities involve established organizations, associations, or clubs. Studies show both types are associated with higher life satisfaction, although ailing health and disability preclude some of the elderly from frequent activity. Social support from both formal and informal sources also improves health outcomes and life chances. Activity theorists claim that these positive results from interactions with others occur because they allow older people to continue carrying out meaningful roles in society. In some cases they permit the continuation of roles carried out in middle age. For others, they enable the initiation of new roles that substitute for (or replace) those that are no longer viable. Most important, they facilitate role stability in the lives of the elderly. Activity theorists believe this is crucial because sudden change in the lifestyles of those in old age is disruptive and potentially harmful.
Critics of activity theory claim that socioeconomic characteristics tend to grant or inhibit entry into the types of associations that foster productive activity. For this reason, the relationship between activity and life satisfaction may be spurious, meaning that those with more education or those of a higher social class might be more active and more satisfied simply because of the elevated position they hold in society. Other criticisms center on the theory’s premise that people must play productive roles in society to make their lives seem meaningful. As the distinction between a productive role and an unproductive role is open to interpretation, some argue that the quality of life among those who prefer a life of solitude and contemplation tends to be underestimated.
- Havighurst, Robert J. 1963. “Successful Aging.” Pp. 299-320 in Process of Aging: Social and Psychological Perspectives, vol. 1, edited by R. Williams, C. Tibbits, and W. Donahue. New York: Atherton.
- Litwin, Howard and Sharon Shiovitz-Ezra. 2006. “The Association between Activity and Well-being in Later Life: What Really Matters?” Ageing & Society 26:225-42.
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