Lois Bowers headshot

Every senior living community plans activities to provide socialization opportunities and help residents remain active and engaged. Now, a study shows that, beyond addressing loneliness, activities help older adults feel happier, healthier, more satisfied with their lives and less depressed.

The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine and led by researchers at University College London, was not specific to senior living but has some takeaways for the industry.

The researchers looked at data from 93,263 people aged 65 or more years who had enrolled in one of five studies in the United States, England and 12 other European countries, Japan and China (one of the studies was the US Health and Retirement Study, waves 9-14).

“[O]ur directionality findings are encouraging because they suggest that experimental efforts to increase hobby engagement may have the potential to alter subsequent mental wellbeing,” the study authors wrote. “Indeed, the association of hobbies with life satisfaction is particularly promising given that it was seen not only in healthier respondents, but also in respondents such as those in the USA where a very high proportion of the respondents were living with long-standing mental or physical health conditions and where psychosocial interventions could be even more relevant.”

The investigators analyzed data from participants (the average age ranged from 72 to 76) spanning four to eight years and found that having a hobby was linked to subsequent decreases in depressive symptoms and increases in happiness and life satisfaction, suggesting that there might be a causal effect. This study, however, was an observational study and so could not prove causality. But the results remained after the researchers adjusted for other factors such as partnership status, household income and employment.

The study looked at four outcomes: depressive symptoms, self-reported health, happiness and life satisfaction.

“Of the four outcomes, life satisfaction was most strongly linked to hobby engagement,” said lead author Karen Mak, PhD, of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care. “Hobbies may contribute to life satisfaction in our later years through many mechanisms, including feeling in control of our minds and bodies, finding a purpose in life, and feeling competent in tackling daily issues.”

Mak said that other, theoretical work suggests that the relationship between hobbies and well-being may “cut both ways,” that is, “that people with better mental health may be more likely to take up a hobby, and persisting with a hobby may help us to retain improved life satisfaction.”

Interestingly, 43.8% of the 6,204 Americans whose data were used in the study said they didn’t have a hobby (56.2% did). (In case you’re wondering, only three of the 16 countries — China, Italy and Spain — had higher percentages of people who said they did not have hobbies and lower percentages of people who said they had hobbies. But the researchers cautioned that study respondents in China were asked only about social hobbies, not hobbies in general.)  

Generally, in countries with better life expectancy and national happiness levels, more people reported having a hobby, and the link between well-being and having a hobby was stronger in those countries as well.

The research, for which the National Endowment for the Arts was one of several sponsors, “supports policymakers in promoting access to hobbies among older people as a way to enhance their well-being and health,” Mak said.

It also should serve as encouragement to senior living activities directors everywhere.

Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Read her other columns here.