Life satisfaction in old age and activity theory: should the debate be re-opened?

  • C.W.I. Gillespie Department of Psychiatry, University of Cape Town, Medical School. Observatory
  • J. Louw Department of Psychology, University of Cape Town


Since the formulation of the activity theory of ageing by Havighurst and Albrecht in 1953. the theory has been subject to intense scrutiny. Although subsequently challenged by the disengagement theory advanced by Cumming and Henry in 1961, it is now widely held that activity, particularly social activity, contributes to increased life satisfaction in the elderly. A literature review however suggests only limited support for activity theory. Meanwhile, the increased proportion of aged people in the population over the past forty years has made the significance of activity theory for the wellbeing and care of the aged increasingly important. Given the paucity of South African research on activity theory, a pilot study was conducted among 43 white South Africans between the ages of 62 and 89 years, using a modified activity scale as developed by Lee and Markides (1990), and a multidimensional life satisfaction index originally developed by Neugarten, Havighurst and Tobin (1961) and further refined by Adams (1969). The pilot study failed to provide support for activity theory, as described by the original theorists, possibly due to a small sample size. Further research in the South African context is suggested, and attention is drawn to the importance of investigating the type and quality of activity in terms of its perceived effects on life satisfaction.


Adams, D.L, 1969. Analysis of a life satisfaction index. Journal of Gerontology. 24 (4):470-74.

Cumming, E. 1963. Further thoughts on the theory of disengagement. UNESCO International Social Science Bulletin. 15: 377-93.

Cumming, E. Dean, L.R., Newell, D.S. & McCaffrey, I. I960. Disengagement: a tentative theory of aging. Sociometry. 23: 23-35.

Cumming, E. & Henry, W.H. 1961. Growing old: the process of disengagement. New York: Basic Books.

Erikson, E.H. 1980. Identity and the life cycle. New York: Norton.

Fennel, G., Phillipson, C. &. Evers, H. 1988. Sociology of old age. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Havighurst, RJ. 1959. Flexibility and the social roles of the retired, American Journal of Sociology. 59: 309-11.

Havighurst, R.J. & Albrecht, R. 1953. Older people. New York: Longmans Green.

Havighurst, R.J., Neugarten, B.L. & Tobin, S.S., 1963, Disengagement and patterns of aging. In: Neugarten. B.L. (Ed.) Middle age and aging a reader in social psychology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 161-72.

Henry, W.E. 1963. The theory of intrinsic disengagement. Paper read at the International Gerontological Research Seminar. Markyrd. Sweden.

Hoyt, D.R., Kaiser, M.A., Peters, G.R & Babchuk, N 1980. Life satisfaction and activity theory: a multidimensional approach., Journal of Gerontology. 35(6): 935-41.

Jung, C.G. 1933. The stages of life. (Translated by R F.C. Hull) In: Campbell. J. (Ed.) 1971. The portable Jung. New York: Viking.

Kimmel, D.C. 1974, Adulthood and aging: an interdisciplinary, developmental view. New York: John Wiley.

Knapp, M, 1976. Predicting the dimension of life satisfaction. Journal of Gerontology. 31:595-604.

Lee, D.J. & Markides, K.S. 1990. Activity and mortality among aged persons over an eight-year period. Journal of Gerontology, 45 (1): S39-42.

Lemon, B.W., Bengston, V.L. & Peterson, J.A. 1972. An exploration of the activity theory of aging: activity types and life satisfaction among in-movers to a retirement community, Journal of Gerontology. 27 (4): 511 -23.

Longino, Jr., C.F. & Kart, C.S. 1982. Explicating activity theory: a formal replication. Journal of Gerontology. 37(6): 713-22.

Maddox, G.L. 1966. Persistence of life-style among the elderly: a longitudinal study of patterns of social activity in relation to life satisfaction. In: Neugarten. B.L.(Ed.) Middle age and aging a reader in social psychology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 81-83.

Maddox, G.L. 1969. Themes and issues in sociological theories of human aging. Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Gerontology. Washington.

Maddox, G.L. (Ed.) 1987. The encyclopedia of aging. New York: Springer.

Marshall, V.W. 1978. No exit: a symbolic interactionist perspective on aging. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, (9): 345-58.

McClelland, K.A. 1982, Self-conception and life satisfaction: integrating aged subculture and activity theory. Journal of Gerontology, 37(6): 723-32.

Meiring, P. de V. 1990. Towards independence in later years. In: Meiring. P. de V. (Ed.) Textbook of geriatric medicine. Kenwyn: Juta. pp. 363-74.

Neugarten, B.L., Havighurst, R.J. & Tobin, S.S, 1961. The measurement of life satisfaction. Journal of Gerontology. 16(2): 134-43.

Palmore, E. 1969. Sociological aspects of aging. In: Busse, E.W. & Pfeiffer, E. (Eds) Behavior and adaptation in later life. Boston: Little, Brown, pp. 33-69.

Palmore, E. 1987. Successful aging. In: Maddox. G.L. (Ed.) The encyclopedia of aging. New York: Springer, p. 654.

Republic of South Africa. Central Statistical Services. 1991, Population Census 1991. Summarised results before adjustment for undercount. Report No. 03-01-00. Pretoria: Government Printer.

Rose, A.M. 1962. The subculture of the aging. A topic for sociological research. The Gerontologist. 2: 123-27.

Wood, V. Wylie, M.L. & Shaefor, B. 1969. An analysis of a short self-report measure of life satisfaction: correlation with rater judgements. Journal of Gerontology. 24(4); 465-69.