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A Better Understanding of Subjective Well-being in Older Age

In today’s ageing societies, assessing subjective well-being  in later life has gained substantial attention among researchers, as well as among policymakers in the areas of economic, health, and social policies. However, remarkably little is known about how older adults understand their own subjective well-being and related concepts, such as quality of life, and how these concepts differ between different groups of older adults. Linden Douma, Nardi Steverink, Inge Hutter and Lousie Meijering from the University of Groningen start to fill this gap in an exploratory study of the subjective well-being of 66 older adults of different gender and age, and with different housing arrangements in northeastern Netherlands. 

Using an innovative participant-generated word cloud method, they found that 15 main domains – each including a range of related aspects – were important to the participants: Social life, activities, health, space and place, independence, mobility, financial situation, societal criticism, political situation, personal characteristics, way of life, religion, health care and support, personal development, and other. The aspects mentioned most frequently by all of the participants were related to the social life domain. In regard to the relative importance of the other domains, aspects related to activities, health, and space and place were mentioned far more often than aspects related to the other nine domains. However, the authors also observed differences in how these three domains were prioritized by different groups (gender, age, housing arrangements). These results indicate that subjective well-being is a multidimensional concept and that its domains have different meanings for the participants of the study.


The authors conclude that the participants’ concepts and priorities regarding subjective well-being seem to be embedded in their individual characteristics, past experiences and contextual circumstances. Therefore, subjective well-being should be interpreted in light of that dynamic context. The authors warn that if researchers and policymakers rely on a predetermined, generic set of domains and standardized measurement scales, relevant aspects (categorized by domains) will be overlooked. Thus, to provide meaningful empirical information, researchers must find ways to study subjective well-being as an individualized and contextualized process. At the local and institutional level, the information obtained about what aspects groups of older adults find important to their subjective well-being could facilitate the promotion of a more person-centered approach to well-being. This can support local policymakers and institutional boards of assisted-living facilities to (re)allocate resources and services in a more efficient and effective way, and ultimately in improving the well-being of the older adults concerned.