Psychological and social wellbeing


Studies of older people suggest that they view
happiness, feeling useful, being socially engaged and productive as crucial elements of ageing well.

Dr Catherine Gale, Prof Ian Deary, Prof Gita Mishra
introduce Psychological and social wellbeing
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What is psychological and social wellbeing?

We all have a sense of how happy or content we feel with life: this is psychological wellbeing. Social wellbeing is a sense of involvement with other people and with our communities. Many researchers believe that wellbeing is not just about being happy or content, but also about being actively engaged with life and with other people.

Why study psychological and social wellbeing?

Maintaining a sense of psychological wellbeing and continuing to be socially engaged in later life is an important part of growing older in a healthy way. This research aimed to discover the factors across life that influence how older people feel and how they function socially. By doing this, we hoped to learn how to improve wellbeing in later life. 

What we know and what we don’t know

The link between a person’s physical health and their sense of wellbeing is well established. Illness and chronic diseases reduce the sense of wellbeing.  Wellbeing is also related to some extent to long-standing traits of personality.

Research suggests that impaired fetal development, lower mental ability, certain personality traits, and an adverse environment in childhood increase the risk of later psychological distress.  The development in childhood and adolescence of coping skills and the means to obtain and provide social support may help individuals deal more easily with the changes of ageing.  However it is not clear how cognitive and psychosocial development during early life influence how people feel or how they function as they get older. Nor is it understood how circumstances and behaviour in adult life influence wellbeing at older ages.

Personality traits, such as emotional stability, optimism, conscientiousness or sense of autonomy, may be important for wellbeing in later life not just because they determine propensity to distress but also because they predict mortality.

What we are researching

Families' weekly food diary

We have looked in depth at how different cohorts vary in wellbeing and the reasons for those differences. We have studied how the following factors influence wellbeing:

  • Lifetime socioeconomic position
  • Birth weight and adult body size 
  • Childhood mental abilities
  • Personality traits
  • Lifetime health status

We have also investigated whether physical or cognitive capability are linked with subsequent wellbeing (see also WP1).

Our quantitative analyses complement the qualitative analyses undertaken by WP3.

In order to facilitate comparable analyses across cohorts we have not only used existing measures but also collected data on positive mental wellbeing, life satisfaction and neighbourhood cohesion using the same instruments (Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS), Diener’s life satisfaction scale and a subset of questions from the Neighbourhood Cohesion Scale, respectively) in the CaPS, HCS, Aberdeen 1936, LBC1921, NSHD and NCDS cohorts.

What have we found so far?

Psychological and social wellbeing

  • We reported that there is a bi-dimensional structure to the Hospital Anxiety and Depression scale in non-clinical samples of older people, thereby making it appropriate to score it as two subscales of anxiety and depression. (Gale et al., International Psychogeriatrics 2010).
  • We also showed that the unidimensionality and reliability of the sub-scales of SF-36 in non-clinical samples of older people are such as to make this a useful measure of health-related quality of life in such groups. (Mishra et al., Quality of Life Research 2011) Hence, we have demonstrated that both scales are appropriate for use in non-clinical samples of older people.
  • In the NSHD we showed that higher neuroticism in adolescence and slightly poorer scores on tests of cognitive function in midlife appeared to be dependent on cognitive ability in childhood (Gale et al., Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Science 2010).
  • We reported that factors measured in very early life (impaired fetal growth and socioeconomic disadvantage in childhood) were not associated with anxiety or depression. By contrast, we showed that factors measured in later life (neuroticism, cognitive and physical function, disability and chronic health) appear to be much more strongly linked to depression and anxiety in older people (Gale et al., Psychological Medicine 2011).
  • In the Hertfordshire Cohort Study we found that older people who that felt a stronger sense of cohesion in their neighbourhood and who reported fewer problems with their neighbourhood had higher levels of positive mental wellbeing, independently of their socioeconomic status, income, state of health and perceived level of social support (Gale et al., Health and Place 2011).
  • We found that, in four of the HALCyon cohorts, people with greater cognitive ability, and those whose cognitive function had improved relative to their cognitive performance in childhood, had slightly higher mental wellbeing scores, but the effects were small, and seemed to be primarily accounted for by the personality trait neuroticism (Gale et a., PLoS One 2012).
  • In a study of over 8,600 people (ELSA) we found that there was no consistent evidence that being more depressed led to an acceleration in cognitive decline and no support for the hypothesis that there might be reciprocal dynamic influences between cognitive ability and depressive symptoms (Gale et al. Psychological Medicine 2012).
  • In the NSHD we have shown that neuroticism and extraversion in adolescence are associated with positive mental wellbeing and life satisfaction at age 60-64 (Gale et al., Journal of Research in Personality 2013)
  • In the five HALCyon cohorts with data on physical capability and positive mental wellbeing (assessed using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale) we found evidence that higher levels of physical capability were associated with higher levels of positive mental wellbeing assessed five to ten years later. However, these effects were modest (Cooper et al., Age 2013).

Please see the Case for Support for a detailed, more technical overview of the work packages.

Further Reading

HALCyon Publications

Kuh D, Cooper R, Hardy R, Richards m, Ben-Shlomo Y (Eds).  A life course approach to healthy ageing.  Oxford University Press to be published January 9th 2014.

  • Chapter 4: A life course approach to psychological and social wellbeing
    Dr Catharine R Gale, Professor Ian J Deary and Dr Mai Stafford