By Glenn Ruffenach
As we age, simply being involved in activities – such as educational pursuits, caregiving and volunteering – isn’t enough. It’s the depth of that involvement that counts.
That’s among the most significant findings from a new report by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. The research, titled “Life and Times in an Aging Society Study,” is the first of its kind, according to the center, that looks beyond the idea of participation in various pursuits and seeks to measure levels of engagement: whether individuals “felt enthusiasm, dedication and absorption” in their chosen activities.
The upshot: Well-being among older Americans tends to be highest among individuals who are highly engaged in various endeavors, as compared with those who (as Woody Allen might say) merely “show up.”
Many studies, of course, have pointed to the benefits, both physical and mental, of staying active as people age. But researchers at Sloan set out to find whether “involvement for involvement’s sake” is sufficient to generate such benefits – or whether “engagement” actually enhances well-being. With that in mind, the center defines “engagement” as “one’s subjective experience of deep connection to something positive, meaningful, invigorating and inspiring.”
The Sloan research focuses on four activities – paid work, caregiving, education and training, and volunteering – among three groups: those under age 50, ages 50 to 64 and 65 and older.
The study found that adults age 50-plus are, on average, more engaged in paid work, volunteering and education than their younger peers. (Engagement in caregiving, the report states, doesn’t appear to increase with age.)
At the same time, researchers found that older adults who reported the highest levels of well-being were those who were moderately or highly engaged in the four activities. Conversely, individuals who simply were involved in a pursuit – without “feeling particularly excited about it, dedicated to it, or challenged by it,” according to Sloan – had some of the lowest well-being scores.
In short, the deeper your “engagement” in various activities in retirement, the greater the payback for you – and others. The study concludes: “When older people direct their energies and talents toward pressing social needs, they generate significant benefits for individuals, families and communities.”