Just a Thought
What this series is about … As we age, keeping physically active is essential. It not only improves the appearance of the body, it also prevents the occurrence of health complications in the future. Join the discussion in this series as we research the various programs that can help maintain a healthy mind and body.
Part 3: Staying Young: Engagement with life (a)
Activity has long been associated with improved wellbeing in later life. However, there are numerous types of activity. The perception of “busy ethic” that has shaped modern retirement seems to suggest that any activity will do. However, it is possible that all activity is not created equal—to the individual, the family, and society.
With a growing ageing population, it is important now to strategically refine our knowledge about the effects of this type of engagement on wellbeing outcomes for the older adult. If older adults come forward in larger numbers to fill these roles in the extended late-life period (or if our society increases the demand on older adults to fill these roles), what will be the effect on the individual? How will we measure its impact on society?
There is an assumption that productive engagement, in and of itself, is a good thing. International literature review supports the benefits of social engagement. For example:
Engagement in paid work
A substantial body of literature documents a positive relationship between employment and wellbeing, even when health and financial status are considered.
● Kasl and Jones (2000) reviewed recent literature on job loss, retirement, and health, and concluded that unemployment is associated with a 20–30% increase in mortality in most studies, and that unemployment increases physical illness and psychological distress.
● Gallo, Bradley, Siegal, & Kasl (2000) found that older adults who were involuntarily laid off had poorer physical functioning and mental health, even after considering their health before the job loss.
These researchers conclude that late-stage job loss has important consequences for wellbeing. They point out that older workers are displaced from jobs more than younger adults, and older adults often enter retirement involuntarily.
Engagement in volunteer work
Many researchers document that volunteers have higher levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction than non-volunteers, suggesting that volunteering can play an important role in maintaining good health in later life. For example:
● Musick, Herzog, and House (1999) carried out an eight-year study of more than 1,200 adults over the age of 65 and found that volunteers have a lower risk of dying than non-volunteers, even after considering the effects of physical health, socio-economic status, and social connectedness.
● Moen, Dempster-McClain and Williams (1992) studied a sample of 300 women over a 30-year period and found that volunteering at an earlier time was related to functional ability at a later time.
In Australia a more refined research agenda would be helpful to understand the effects of the types, quantity, and conditions of activity on older adults.
A call is made for further research to advance our understanding of these types of questions.
Is community engagement more important to happiness and productivity than material wealth?
According to Helliwell (2006) relationships with family and friends and even joining community groups are more related to happiness and satisfaction than material wealth.
Addressing The Vancouver Board of Trade launch of its new speaker program, Knowledge for the Boardroom—Dedicated to Corporate and Public Stewardship, Helliwell said "We overstate the importance of material consumption … And in the end that affects productivity in the workplace and the bottom line."
Helliwell, who is one of the world’s foremost researchers on people’s happiness and wellbeing, presented his latest findings based on surveys of more than 100,000 people both in Canada and around the world. He showed how his results break new ground in highlighting the significance of a society’s wellbeing or social capital—the value of people’s social connectedness through their networks and engagement in the community around them.
Calling himself a "student of wellbeing", Helliwell analysed data from Statistics Canada (which he claims is the best statistics-gathering organisation in the world). Using an Index of Life Satisfaction, tens of thousands of people were asked to rank, from 1 to 10, how satisfied they are with their lives. Similar studies were carried out systematically in other parts of the world.
"This is taking economics back to its roots—the utility of people … Social capital, where it exists, is extremely important," said Helliwell.
To illustrate his results, Helliwell put a dollar figure to give a recognisable value to how important certain factors are to wellbeing. Factors measured were: engagement (how connected people are with others); employment (paid or not); family, friends and neighbours; good health; high quality of government services and management decisions at all levels; and adequate income (relative to expectations).
Results showed that being a member of an organisation, in terms of increasing wellbeing, is valued at the equivalent of around $25,000, seeing family frequently at $125,000 and seeing friends frequently at more than $100,000. Trust towards others is valued at nearly $80,000, while negative evaluations included being separated from your spouse at minus almost $70,000 and illness topping the negativity list at minus $320,000.
In the workplace, the most valuable factor of wellbeing was trust toward management, valued at more than $500,000, when the most-trustworthy and least-trustworthy managements are being compared. This shows that even a modest change in workplace trust relations can significantly affect life satisfaction.
Helliwell quoted the first proponent of social capital, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and author of Bowling Alone who indicated that while social capital had increased in the first 70 years of the last century, it has been on a downward trend in the last 30 years. Helliwell warned that disengagement, or isolation and disconnectedness from people in the community, continues to be on the increase as cities have transformed into global centres attracting a high turnover of people from all over the world.
“Community takes time to build. That is even tougher in the high-turnover, modern urban neighbourhoods of today. Most violent crimes are committed by people who often tend to be ill-connected.
“Ranking the national averages of life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, Canada scored high—about the same as the US and just slightly behind Denmark. Sweden, which also ranks high on the scale, has a high occurrence of people engaged in memberships of organisations, which in turn builds up trust relationships, or what some call trust capital,” says Helliwell.
Concluding a question-and-answer session, business and education leaders concurred that this research is a breakthrough and should be applied to the business world. Happy employees are more productive and increase shareholder value, although it has not yet impacted business in as significant a way as it should—at least not in a CEO’s office.
The above findings are also convincing for the education sector. Schools should change and incorporate these elements into their educational packages. If this international data is strong enough to go into real-life situations for business, the same type of surveys could be applied to educational institutions and the theory put into practice.
Other seminars under the theme of Future Knowledge for the Boardroom focus on the importance of corporate and public stewardship in today’s society, and how competent corporate stewardship is directly linked to shareholder value and the success of the organisation—by engaging with employees inside and the community outside.
Corporate stewardship is vital to long-term shareholder and business success. Good corporate citizenship hinges on looking at the enterprise of human capital. Research reveals that workers place high value on non-financial job features like trust, interaction with co-workers and input in decision-making, which make up the social capital of the workplace. Most importantly, a person’s overall wellbeing and satisfaction in life are significantly affected if any of these are missing in the workplace, and shows in their personal success rate and that of their organisation.
The results highlight the many opportunities both managers and employees have to make their workplace better and to increase both individual satisfaction and workplace productivity. Some of these latest theories are relatively new to the marketplace. The wellbeing and satisfaction of people in the workplace, the real currency of human capital, are directly linked to the efficiency and productivity of individuals in their personal lives and the organisations where they work.
Thus, institutions have responsibility to ensure that the work of their employees is connected not only to their institutional structures but also to the workplace environment of the community in which they serve. Such corporate and public stewardship is vital to put these theories into practice and also to make them relevant to the business world of today.
About Helliwell …
John F. Helliwell is an Arthur J.E. Foundation Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR) and UBC (based on joint research with Haifang Huang). His data is from the new CIAR program on "Social Interactions, Identity and Wellbeing." Helliwell was originally a skeptical economist and later became convinced by the evidence from this research. Helliwell’s paper, entitled How is the Job? Wellbeing and Social Capital in the Workplace is available among others on the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) web site. http://www.nber.org/.
Gallo W, Bradley E, Siegel M and Kasl S, 2000. Health effects of involuntary job loss among older workers. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 55B, S131-149.
Glass TA, Mendes de Leon C, Marottoli RA and Berkman LF, 1999. Population based study of social and productive activities as predictors of survival among elderly Americans. British Medical Journal, 319, 478-483.
Hadley T 2006. Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, March 14, 2006.
Kasl SV and Jones BA, 2000. The impact of job loss and retirement on health. In: L. F Berkman & I Kawachi (Eds.), Social Epidemiology, Oxford University Press, 118-136.
Moen P, Dempster-McClain D, and Williams R, 1992. Successful aging: A life-course perspective on women's multiple roles and health. American Journal of Sociology, 97, 1612-1638.
Moen P, Robison J, and Dempster-McClain D, 1995. Care-giving and women's wellbeing: A life course approach. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 36, 259-273.
Morrow-Howell N, 2005. Report on key research findings of the research on Productive Engagement of Older Adults: Effects on Wellbeing http://www.longerlife.org/white_papers/
Musick MA, Herzog AR and House JS, 1999. Volunteering and mortality among older adults: Findings from a national sample. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 54B, S173-S180.
Schulz R and Beach SR, 1999. Care-giving as a risk factor for mortality: The caregiver health effects study. Journal of the American Medical Association, 282, 2215-2219 [Online].
Project Manager and Editor, Quality4life
20 September 2006