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Meeting Happiness

How social activity affects the well-being of Europeans over 50 years old


The Covid-19 pandemic has severely restricted social contacts for people everywhere, and especially for the elderly. Yet, HSE researchers found that meeting with friends and relatives was one of the key conditions for happiness among Europeans aged 50 and older. In fact, such social contacts were just as important for them as their health, material well-being, or professional fulfilment. The report on the results of the study was prepared for the XXI April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development.

Even Once a Month is Good

Staying at home reduces the risk of contracting Covid-19 but it also has a negative effect on mental health, in part because it limits the social activity that is so important for the elderly. Moreover, they were the first people subjected to harsh measures for self-isolation.

HSE researchers studying the link between social activity and happiness among Europeans aged 50 and older found that middle-aged and older Europeans had a 73.3% greater chance of feeling happy if they could visit with friends or relatives once a month. That figure grew to 212% if such visits were weekly.

The study was based on data from the sixth wave of the European Social Survey and covered 23,766 respondents from 26 countries. Researchers said they focused on those over 50 because that is when people’s social status begins to change gradually as they leave the labour force to care for grandchildren and aged parents or to pursue early retirement.

The More Active You Are, the Happier You Are

Another form of socialization available to Europeans is volunteering with charities for children, the elderly, the disabled, etc. Although it does not have the same effect as meeting with loved ones, those who volunteered at least once a month were 25.9% more likely to feel happy.

According to role theory, excessive social activity can have the opposite effect. Because everyone’s time and resources are limited, numerous commitments can lead to emotional tension and stress that affect the elderly most. Multiple studies confirm that too much volunteer activity (more than once or several times a month) either diminishes a person’s subjective well-being or else fails to improve it.

The HSE study, however, did not confirm the hypothesis that increased social activity negatively affects happiness levels. It focused on contacts with loved ones once a week or more and volunteering once a month or more. ‘The more often an individual meets with relatives and friends, the higher their subjective sense of well-being. And in the case of volunteering, only high-intensity activity (once a month or more) had a positive effect on their level of happiness,’ the researchers said.

The quarantine measures certainly do affect and have already affected the subjective well-being of all people, not only the older generation. This is due not only to social isolation, but also to the change in people’s daily routine and schedule, reduced motor activity, and the emotional stress of disturbing news. According to Oksana Sinyavskaya, Deputy Director of the HSE Institute for Social Policy, ‘The first studies conducted in China showed that the coronavirus epidemic and associated quarantine led to an increase in anxiety, sleep disorders, and depressive symptoms in all population groups.’

Volunteering Instead of Close Communication

The report’s authors also tried to determine whether volunteering could take the place of contact with friends and relatives. The answer was ‘yes,’ but again, only if such activity occurred at least once a month. Still, this was not true for all countries. For example, in Switzerland, Germany, and Iceland, frequent volunteering (once a month or more) replaces frequent social contacts (once a week or more). In other words, if a person is more active in volunteering, he interacts less actively with friends and relatives. The opposite was true in Sweden, Portugal, Albania, and Bulgaria: frequent volunteer activity increased the incidence of informal social contacts.

In one-half of the countries, these activities do not replace each other at all. For example, the Netherlands and Norway have the largest number of people over 50 who are involved in both types of activity. Conversely, in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, both the formal and informal activity of people over 50 is lower than in most other countries.

Russian Values

Middle-aged and elderly Russians are among the least happy in the world, ranking 22nd out of 26. The situation is similar in other Eastern and Southern European countries, as well as in the Baltic States. ‘These middle-aged and elderly people might see themselves as less happy than their counterparts in Northern and Western Europe because of their different living conditions and degree of social activity,’ the researchers said.

How to Compensate for the Lack of Social Activity in Self-isolation

‘When many countries have quarantines, the usual social activity can be replaced by remote forms of communication — social networks and messenger services — that make it possible to stay in contact with relatives and friends, said Oksana Sinyavskaya. She added that any human activity that brings positive results could become a source of subjective well-being. Many informational, educational, cultural, and recreational organizations are providing free access to their online services. The researchers suggest that the elderly can compensate partially for their lack of communication by substituting other activities for those that are unavailable during the quarantine.

There are several reasons why Russia’s elderly are less socially active, the authors note. These include an insufficiently developed third sector, a lack of information about opportunities for volunteering, and Russians’ low level of mutual trust that forms the basis of relationships between neighbours and friends, and of organizations and institutions. ‘The older generation’s Soviet experience with, on the one hand, its quasi-obligatory volunteer activity (such as taking part in annual clean-up drives, etc.) and on the other hand, formal membership in workers’ unions and other organizations that had no substance in practice contribute to the lower level of interest in volunteering now,’ write the researchers. Finally, the authors said that, in their opinion, formal social activity is less beneficial than familial forms of mutual support backed up by traditionally strong family values.


Study authors:
Oksana Sinyavskaya, Deputy Director of the HSE Institute for Social Policy
Anna Cherviakova, research fellow at the HSE Institute for Social Policy
Darya Kareva, research assistant at the HSE Institute for Social Policy
Author: Marina Selina, April 17, 2020