Subjective Well-being in Older Adults: Current State and Gaps of Research

  • Dieter Ferring
  • Thomas Boll


Subjective well-being (SWB) refers to an evaluation of an individual’s life from his or her own perspective. It contrasts sharply with evaluations made from the point of view of external observers (researchers or policymakers), which are based on objective criteria related to health, education, income or other aspects (Diener, 2006). Recently, prominent SWB researchers have argued forcefully in favour of supplementing traditional objective indicators of well-being or quality of life (such as economic indicators) with indicators of SWB (thus, people’s evaluations and feelings about their lives). This should provide the public and politicians with more complete and relevant information for public discussion and political decision-making (see Diener, Kesebir and Lucas, 2008). In our opinion, these arguments apply with equal measure to the quality of life and SWB of older adults. The following list is an overview of policy questions about these issues. The list comprises five sets of questions that will in part be answered in later sections of the chapter.


Life Satisfaction Negative Affect Positive Affect Life Domain Older Adult 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Andrews, F.M. and S.B. Withey (1976) Social Indictors of Well-being (New York: Plenum Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baltes, P.B. and M.M. Baltes (1990) ‘Psychological Perspectives on Successful Aging: The Model of Selective Optimization with Compensation’ in P.B. Baltes and M.M. Baltes (eds) Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bradburn, N.M. (1969) The Structure of Psychological Well-being (Chicago: Aldine).Google Scholar
  4. Brandtstädter, J. and K. Rothermund (2002) ‘The Life-course Dynamics of Goal Pursuit and Goal Adjustment: A Two-process Framework’. Developmental Review, 22, 117–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brickman, P. and D.T. Campbell (1971) ‘Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society’ in M.H. Appley (ed.) Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium (New York: Academic Press), pp. 287–302.Google Scholar
  6. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).Google Scholar
  7. Charles, S.T., C.A. Reynolds and M. Gatz (2001) ‘Age-related Differences and Change in Positive and Negative Affect over 23 Years’. Journal of Personality Assessment, 80, 136–151.Google Scholar
  8. Coan, J.A. and J.J.B. Allen (eds) (2007) Handbook of Emotion Elicitation and Assessment (New York: Oxford University Press).Google Scholar
  9. Costa, P.T. and R.P. McCrae (1993) ‘Psychological Research in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging’. Zeitschrift für Gerontologie, 26, 138–141.Google Scholar
  10. Cummins, R.A., R. Eckersley, J. Pallant, J. van Vugt and R. Misajon (2003) ‘Developing a National Index of Subjective Wellbeing: The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index’. Social Indicators Research, 64, 159–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. DeNeve, K.M. and H. Cooper (1998) ‘The Happy Personality: A Meta-analysis of 137 Personality Traits and Subjective Well–being’. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 197–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Diener, E. (2006) ‘Guidelines for National Indicators of Subjective Well-being and Ill-being’. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 1, 151–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Diener, E., R.A. Emmons, R.J. Larsen and S. Griffin (1985) ‘The Satisfaction with Life Scale’, Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Diener, E. and M.E. Suh (1998) ‘Subjective Well-being and Age: An International Analysis’, Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 17, 304–324.Google Scholar
  15. Diener, E., S. Oishi and R.E. Lucas (2003) ‘Personality, Culture, and Subjective Well-being: Emotional and Cognitive Evaluations of Life’, Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 403–425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Diener, E., R.E. Lucas and C. Scollon (2006) ‘Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-being’, American Psychologist, 61, 305–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Diener, E., P. Kesebir and R. Lucas (2008) ‘Benefit of Accounts of Well-being - for Societies and for Psychological Science’, Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57, 37–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Easterlin, R.A. (2006) ‘Life Circle Happiness and its Sources: Intersections of Psychology, Economics and Demography’, Journal of Economic Psychology, 27, 463–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Easterlin, R.A. and O. Sawangfa (2007) ‘Happiness and Domain Satisfaction: Theory and Evidence’, Bonn: IZA discussion paper 2584.Google Scholar
  20. Ferri, C.P., M. Prince, C. Brayne, H. Brodaty, L. Fratiglioni, M. Ganguli, K. Hall, K. Hasegawa, H. Hendrie, Y. Huang, A. Jorm, C. Mathers, P. R Menezes, E. Rimmer, M. Scazufca, for Alzheimer ’s Disease International (2005) ‘Global Prevalence of Dementia: A Delphi Consensus Study’, Lancet, 366, 2112–2117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ferring, D. and S.-H. Filipp (1997) ‘Subjektives Wohlbefinden im Alter: Struktur- und Stabilitätsanalysen’ [Subjective Well-being in Old Age: Analyses of Structure and Stability], Psychologische Beiträge, 39, 236–258.Google Scholar
  22. Ferring, D., C. Balducci, V. Burholt, C.G. Wenger, F. Thissen, G. Weber and I. Hallberg-Rahm (2004) ‘Life Satisfaction of Older People in Six European Countries: Findings from the European Study on Adult Well-being’, European Journal of Ageing, 1, 15–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Filipp, S.-H. and P. Aymanns (2010) Kritische Lebensereignisse und Lebenskrisen [Critical Life Events and Life Crises] (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer).Google Scholar
  24. Frederick, S. and G. Loewenstein (1999) ‘Hedonic Adaptation‘ in D. Kahneman, E. Diener and N. Schwarz (eds) Well-being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Sage), pp. 302–329.Google Scholar
  25. Gable, S.L. and J. Haidt (2005) ‘What (and Why) is Positive Psychology?’ Review of General Psychology, 9, 103–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gerstorf, D., N. Ram, C. Röcke, U. Lindenberger and J. Smith (2008a) ‘Decline in Life-satisfaction in Old Age: Longitudinal Evidence for Links to Distance to Death, Psychology and Aging, 23, 154–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gerstorf, D., N. Ram, R. Estabrook, J. Schupp, G.G. Wagner and U. Lindenberger (2008b) ‘Life Satisfaction Shows Terminal Decline in Old Age: Longitudinal Evidence from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP)’, Developmental Psychology, 44, 1148–1159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Greenfield, E.A. and N.F. Marks (2004) ‘Formal Volunteering as a Protective Factor for Older Adults’ Psychological Well-being’, Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59B, S258-S264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Heckhausen, J., C. Wrosch and R. Schulz (2010) ‘A Motivational Theory of Life-span Development’, Psychological Review, 117, 32–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hsieh, C.-M. (2003) ‘Counting Importance: The Case of Life Satisfaction and Relative Domain Importance’, Social Indicators Research, 61, 227–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hsieh, C.-M. (2005) ‘Age and Relative Importance of Major Life Domains’, Journal of Aging Studies, 19, 503–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Isaacson, D. and J. Smith (2003) ‘Positive and Negative Affect in Very Old Age’, Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58, P143-P152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Jopp, D. and C. Rott (2006) ‘Adaptation in Very Old Age: Exploring the Role of Resources, Beliefs, and Attitudes for Centenarians’ Happiness’, Psychology and Aging, 21, 266–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kahneman, D., A.B. Krueger, D.A. Schkade, N. Schwarz and A.A. Stone (2004) ‘A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method’, Science, 306, 1776–1780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Knight, B. (2004) Psychotherapy with Older Adults (New York: Sage).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kohli, M. and H. Künemund (2010) ‘Social Networks’ in L. Bovenberg, A. van Soest and A. Zaid (eds) Aging, Health and Pensions in Europe (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. xxx-yyy.Google Scholar
  37. Kunzmann, U., T.D. Little and J. Smith (2000) ‘Is Age-related Stability of Subjective Well-being a Paradox? Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Evidence from the Berlin Aging Study’, Psychology and Aging, 15, 511–526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lawrence, R.H. and J. Liang (1988) ‘Structural Integration of the Affect Balance Scale and the Life Satisfaction Index A: Race, Sex and Age Differences’, Psychology and Aging, 3, 375–384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lewin, S. (1996) ‘Economics and Psychology: Lessons for our Own Day from the Early Twentieth Century’, Journal of Economic Literature, 34, 1293–1323.Google Scholar
  40. Logsdon, R.G., L.E. Gibbons, S.M. McCurry and L. Teri (2002) ‘Assessing Quality of Life in Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 64, 510–519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lucas, R.E. (2007a) ‘Adaptation and the Set-point Model of Subjective Well-being. Does Happiness Change after Major Life Events?’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 75–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lucas, R.E. (2007b) ‘Long-term Disability is Associated with Lasting Changes in Subjective Well-being: Evidence from Two Nationally Representative Longitudinal Studies’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 717–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lucas, R.E. (2008) ‘Personality and Subjective Well-being’ in M. Eid and R.J. Larson (eds), The Science of Subjective Well-being (New York: Guilford Press), pp. 171–194.Google Scholar
  44. Lucas, R.E., A.E. Clark, Y. Georgellis and E. Diener (2003) ‘Reexamining Adaptation and the Set Point Model of Happiness: Reactions to Changes in Marital Status’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527–539.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lyubomirsky, S., L. King and E. Diener (2005) ‘The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?’ Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lyubomirsky, S., K.M. Sheldon and D. Schkade (2005) ‘Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change’, Review of General Psychology, 9, 111–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. McMunn, A., J. Nazroo, M. Wahrendorf, E. Breeze and P. Zaninotto (2009) ‘Participation in Socially-productive Activities, Reciprocity and Wellbeing in Later Life: Baseline Results in England’, Ageing and Society, 29, 765–782.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Michalos, A.C. (1986) ‘An Application of Multiple Discrepancies Theory (MDT) to Seniors’, Social Indicators Research, 18, 349–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Mollenkopf, H., F. Marcellini, I. Ruoppila, Z. Széman, M. Tacken and H.-W. Wahl (2004) ‘Social and Behavioural Science Perspectives on Out-of-home Mobility in Later Life: Findings from the European Project MOBILATE’, European Journal of Ageing, 1, 45–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Mroczek, D.K. and A. Spiro III (2005) ‘Change in Life Satisfaction During Adulthood: Findings from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 189–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Murrell, S.A. and S. Meeks (2002) ‘Psychological, Economic and Social Mediators of the Education-health Relationship in Older Adults’, Journal of Aging and Health, 14, 527–550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Palgi, Y., A. Shrira, M. Ben-Ezra, T. Spalter, D. Shmotkin and G. Kave (2010) ‘Delineating Terminal Change in Subjective Well-being and Subjective Health: Brief Report’, Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 65B, 61–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Pinquart, M. (1997) ‘Selbstkonzept- und Befindensunterschiede im Erwachsenenalter: Ergebnisse von Metaanalysen’, [Differences in Self-concept and Well-being across the Adult Life Span: Results of Meta-analyses]. Zeitschrift für Gerontopsychologie und-Psychiatrie, 10, 17–25.Google Scholar
  54. Pinquart, M. (2001) ‘Age Differences in Perceived Positive Affect, Negative Affect and Affect Balance in Middle and Old Age’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2, 375–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pinquart, M. and S. Sörensen (2000) ‘Influences of Socioeconomic Status, Social Network, and Competence on Subjective Well-being in Later Life: A Meta-analysis’, Psychology and Aging, 15, 187–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pinquart, M. and S. Sörensen (2001) ‘How Effective are Psychotherapeutic and Other Psychosocial Interventions with Older Adults? A Meta-analysis’, Journal of Mental Health and Aging, 7, 207–243.Google Scholar
  57. Pinquart, M. and S. Sörensen (2003) ‘Differences Between Caregivers and Noncaregivers in Psychological Health and Physical Health: A Meta-analysis’, Psychology and Aging, 18, 250–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Pinquart, M. and S. Sörensen (2005) ‘Caregiving Distress and Psychological Health of Caregivers’ in K.V. Oxington (ed.) Psychology of Stress (New York: Nova Science Publishers), pp. 165–206.Google Scholar
  59. Pinquart, M. and I. Schindler (2007) ‘Changes of Life Satisfaction in the Transition to Retirement: A Latent-class Approach’, Psychology and Aging, 22, 442–455.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Plagnol, A.C. and R.A. Easterlin (2008) ‘Aspirations, Attainments and Satisfaction: Life Cycle Differences between American Women and Men’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 601–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pons, D., F.L. Atienza, I. Balaguer and M.L. Garcia-Merita (2000) ‘Satisfaction with Life Scale: Analysis of Factorial Invariance for Adolescents and Elderly Persons’, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 91, 62–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Pushkar, D., J. Chaikelson, M. Conway, J. Etezadi, C. Giannopoulus, K. Li and C. Wrosch (2010) ‘Testing Continuity and Activity Variables as Predictors of Positive and Negative Affect in Retirement’, Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 65B, 42–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Roick, C., A. Hinz and H.-J. Gertz (2007) ‘Kann Lebensqualität bei Demenzkranken Valide Bestimmt Werden? Eine Aktuelle Übersicht über Messinstrumente und Methodische Probleme‘ [Is Quality of Life in Dementia Patients Validly Estimable? A Current Review about Measuring Instruments and Methodological Problems], Psychiatrische Praxis, 34, 108–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Schilling, O. (2006) ‘Development of Life Satisfaction in Old Age: Another View in the “Paradox”’. Social Indicators Research, 75, 241–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schimmack, U. (2008) ‘The Structure of Subjective Well-being’ in M. Eid and R.J. Larson (eds) The Science of Subjective Well-being (New York: Guilford Press), pp. 97–123.Google Scholar
  66. Sigrist, J. and M. Wahrendorf (2010) ‘Social Productivity and Well-being’ in L. Bovenberg, A. van Soest and A. Zaid (eds), Aging, Health and Pensions in Europe (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. xxx-yyy.Google Scholar
  67. Smith, J. (2002) ‘The Fourth age: A Period of Psychological Mortality?’ In Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften and Ernst Schering Research Foundation (eds), Biomolecular Aspects of Aging: The Social and Ethical Implications (Max-Planck-Forum No. 4) (München: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft), pp. 75–88.Google Scholar
  68. Staudinger, U. (2000) ‘Viele Gründe Sprechen Dagegen, und Totzdem Geht es Vielen Menschen Gut: Das Paradox des Subjektiven Wohlbefindens’ [Many Reasons Speak Against it, Yet Many People Feel Good: The Paradox of Subjective Well-being], Psychologische Rundschau, 51, 185–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Thomae, H. (1970) ‘Theory of Aging and Cognitive Theory of Personality’, Human Development, 13, 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Vaarama, M. (2009) ‘Care-related Quality of Life in Old Age’, European Journal of Aging, 6, 113–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. van Praag, B.M.S., P. Frijters and A. Ferrer-i-Carbonell (2003) ‘The Anatomy of Subjective Well-being’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 51, 29–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. van Willigen, M. (2000) ‘Differential Benefits of Volunteering across the Life Course. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 55B, S308-S318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Watson, D., L.A. Clark and A. Tellegen (1988) ‘Development and Validation of Brief Measures of Positive and Negative Affect: The PANAS Scales’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063–1070.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wheeler, J.A., K.M. Gorey and B. Greenblatt (1998) ‘The Beneficial Effects of Volunteering for Older Volunteers and the People They Serve: A Meta-analysis’, International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 47, 69–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Banerjee, S., K. Samsi, C.D. Petrie, J. Alvir, M. Treglia, E.M. Schwam and M. del Valle (2009) 'What Do We Know about Quality of Life in Dementia? A Review of the Emerging Evidence on the Predictive and Explanatory Value of Disease Specific Measures of Health-related Quality of Life in People with Dementia', International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 24: 15–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Beckman, N., M. Waern, D. Gustafson and I. Skoog (2008) 'Secular Trends in Self-reported Sexual Activity and Satisfaction in Swedish 70-Year-Olds: Cross-sectional Survey of Four Populations, 1971–2001’, British Medical Journal, 337:a279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Copeland, J.R.M., A.T.F Beekman, M.E. Dewey, C. Hooijer, A. Jordan, B.A. Lawlor, A. Lobo, H. Magnússon, A. Mann, I. Meller, M.J. Prince, F. Reischies, C. Turrina, M.W. deVries and K.C.M. Wilson (1999) ‘Depression in Europe. Geographical Distribution among Older People’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 174: 312–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Hofman, A. and the EURODEM Prevalence Research Group (1991) ‘The Prevalence of Dementia in Europe: A Collaborative Study of 1980-1990 Findings’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 20: 736–748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Albrecht, G. and P. Devlieger (1999) 'The Disability Paradox: High Quality of Life Against All Odds', Social Science and Medicine, 48, 977–988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Anger, E., M. Ray, K. Saag and J. Allison (2009) ‘Health and Happiness among Older Adults’, Journal of Health Psychology, 14(4), 503–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Blanchflower, D. and A. Oswald (2007) ‘Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?’ NBER working paper 12935.Google Scholar
  82. Cummins, R.A. (1995) ‘On the Trail of the Gold Standard for Subjective Well-being’, Social Indicators Research, 35, 179–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Cummins, R.A. (1998) ‘The Second Approximation to an International Standard for Life Satisfaction’, Social Indicators Research, 35, 179–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Delhey (2004) ‘Life Satisfaction in an Enlarged Europe’, European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities).Google Scholar
  85. Ferring, D. and T. Boll (2009) ‘Regulation of Psycho-social Well-being in Ageing’, ESF Forward Look "Ageing, Health and Pensions in Europe, The Hague Gundelach, P. and S. Kreiner (2004) ‘Happiness and Life Satisfaction in Advanced European Countries’, Cross Cultural Research, 38(4), 359–366.Google Scholar
  86. Inglehart, R. (2002) ‘Gender, Aging, and Subjective Well-Being’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 43, 391–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Lykkens, D. and A. Tellegen (1996) ‘Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon’, Psychological Science, 7, 186–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Marinié, M and T. Brkljacie (2008) ‘Love over Gold – The Correlation of Happiness Level with Some Life Satisfaction Factors between Persons with and without Physical Disability’, Journal of Development Physical Disability. 20, 527–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Paúl, C., S. Ayis and S. Ebrahim (2007) ‘Disability and Psychosocial Outcomes in Old Age’, Journal of Aging Health, 19, 723–741.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Veenhoven, R. (2008) ‘Healthy Happiness: Effects of Happiness on Physical Health and the Consequences for Preventive Health Care’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 449–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Dieter Ferring / Thomas Boll 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dieter Ferring
  • Thomas Boll

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations