The Activity Theory of Aging Explained


How do adults stay happy as they get older? According to the activity theory of aging, older adults who remain active and are able to maintain their social interactions find the highest degrees of happiness in their lives.

First developed by Robert Havighurst in 1961, the theory proposes that older adults maintain an optimal aging rate when they are able to continue pursuing activities and relationships which interest them. It assumes that there is a positive relationship between one’s overall satisfaction and their ability to participate in activities.

How Does the Activity Theory of Aging Work?

When an individual is able to engage in a full day of activities, then they are able to perceive a personal level of productivity. This, in turn, allows this person to age in a successful way.

To put it another way: the more you’re able to do as you get older, then the better your body will be aging.

We can see this theory in practical ways almost every day. Most people who continue to be active and engaged in their community in some way are typically happier and healthier than those who are not. This is because there is a connection between the person and the world around them.

And although this theory applies to older adults, it really is applicable to anyone of any age. With engagement comes happiness.

Who Was Robert Havighurst?

Robert Havighurst was born in Wisconsin in 1900. He would earn his PhD in Chemistry from Ohio State in 1924 and became a Fulbright Scholar in 1953-1954. Over his career, he would publish numerous papers regarding his studies on the structure of the atom. He would even become a post-doctorate fellow at Harvard to study atomic structure.

At the age of 28, he decided to make a career change and began to work in the field of experimental education. In just 12 years, he would become a professor at the University of Chicago in their education department and would sit on the Committee of Human Development. His focus tended to be in the field of aging.

Havighurst would identify six major stages of human life, with “later maturity” occurring at the age of 60 and older. With the stages of life identified, he was able to create developmental tasks that would help to further the satisfaction of age at each stage. Tasks that came from maturation, personal values, and alleviate the pressures of society were all deemed to be beneficial.

It is from this that the activity theory of aging originated. It is reflected in this quote from him: “The two basic principle processes of education are knowing and valuing.”

This is why there is some criticism of Havighurst’s theory. He recognized that education became valuable through knowledge and value of that knowledge, yet created a theory for aging that was essentially based on only choosing to perform an activity.

When the educational processes and the activity theory of aging are combined, the theory of aging that Havighurst presents becomes much more meaningful.

What Are the Critiques of the Active Theory of Aging?

The primary critique of Havighurst’s theory is that it overlooks inequality. Not every aging adult has the same health status. There may be economic factors which inhibit an individual’s ability to pursue relationships or engage in preferred activities. Some older adults may also derive satisfaction from their ability to no longer pursue a new challenge.

The theory also states that “being busy” can be just as helpful as pursuing something that you are passionate about. If you can hop onto a stationary bike and ride 10 miles, that’s about as good as playing a round of golf. There needs to be something fulfilling about the activities which are being performed instead of simply performing an activity.

There is also the issue to considered when it comes to life maintenance. Imagine being a prolific writer for more than 40 years for an employer. When you retire, you no longer have the means to publish on your own. Taking up another activity, like photography, will not be as satisfying, especially if there was a great love for writing. This means that the active theory of aging could be more accurate if it looked at the whole of a person’s life instead of only during the elder years.

The activity theory of aging is just one way to look at how we can age successfully. By continuing habits, relationships, and taking advantage of lifestyle opportunities, it may be possible to age gracefully in the best possible way.