People who are socially engaged live and die happier

Often people’s well-being already begins to decline rapidly a few years before their death. There are, however, substantial differences between the individuals affected, something for which there has as yet been no precise scientific explanation. It is obvious that a person’s state of health is crucial for their well-being, particularly at the end of life. What has so far been less clear is the role played by psychosocial factors. Researchers from the Department of Psychology of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU), in collaboration with the longitudinal German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), carried out a study to examine the connection between social engagement and well-being in the final stage of life. The results have now been published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

For the study “Terminal decline in well-being: The role of social orientation”, the research group analysed data from the ongoing SOEP longitudinal study, conducted under the aegis of the Leibniz Association at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). The data examined related to 2.910 deceased persons who, before their death, had taken part in the annual survey up to 27 times. Their average age at the time of death was 74, and there was a balanced mix of men and women. North American researchers from Arizona State University, Cornell University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of British Columbia were also involved in analysing the data.

The findings show that both an active social life and the pursuit of social goals are – independent of one another – linked with a higher degree of well-being in this final phase of life. The connection can be observed independent of other already known factors, such as state of health, disabilities, or time spent in hospital, or, for example, gender, socio-economic status and level of education. The size of the effect lies at close to ten per cent with regard to the degree of well-being, and at nearly twenty per cent in relation to the decline in well-being shortly before death.

“We were surprised to see that the connections between social participation and appreciation on the one hand, and well-being – i.e. how satisfied people are with their lives – on the other were so strong, even at the end of life. We wouldn’t have expected that”, says Denis Gerstorf from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, one of the authors of the study. “People with a social orientation are interested in helping others, and engage in social and political initiatives. Clearly this is important for their own well-being, even – or indeed especially – at the end of life”, continues Gerstorf.

One particularly interesting finding is that if the subjects were both less socially active and found social goals less important, the effects (which were already present individually) were considerably magnified. One year before their death, these people rated their satisfaction with life as particularly low. Furthermore, the study was able to show that social participation is not only important in itself, but that it is also vital to remain socially active. Thus, the decline in well-being before death was less marked in people whose high level of social activities – despite illness and disability – barely decreased. “Socially active older people feel good, probably because they are doing things they enjoy. This can indirectly increase their general satisfaction with life, because it boosts their self-esteem and the feeling that they can still make a difference”, explains Gert G. Wagner (DIW Berlin), one of the co-authors of the study.

Gerstorf, D., Hoppmann, C. A., Löckenhoff, C. E., Infurna, F. J., Schupp, J., Wagner, G. G., & Ram, N. (2016). Terminal decline in well-being: The role of social orientation. Psychology and Aging. doi: 10.1037/pag0000072

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Dr Katrin Schaar
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Tel.: 030 2093-9421

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