HANDICAP AND HAPPINESS: ARE THEY AFFECTED BY MENTAL HEALTH AND SOCIAL NETWORK?

Everyone wants to live a long, happy life. Yet as we grow older, we suffer from diseases and become handicapped. This study investigates whether handicap and happiness depend on one’s mental health and social network, and whether one can accept and adapt to their handicap over time.

Everyone wants to live a long, happy life. Yet as we grow older, we suffer from diseases and become handicapped. Everyday life becomes much harder when one struggles in waking up, bathing, doing basic chores, or go out and about with friends and family. Therefore, one could assume that being handicapped would affect happiness. However in reality, people with handicap vary widely in their happiness: some may feel unhappy, but there are others who are happy with their lives. This may depend on their mental health and social network. For example, some people with depressive feelings and loneliness could be prone to the damaging effects of being handicapped and therefore feel unhappy. On the contrary, people with supportive friends and family may cope better when struggling with handicap than those without strong social network. It is also interesting to see if these changes as people grow older, because over time people may learn to accept and adapt to their new situation, for instance being handicapped.

In this study, we investigated whether mental health and social network affect the relation between being handicapped and happiness. We were also interested to see whether this changes over time as people grow older. Here we used data from the SHARE study spanning 17 European countries and Israel. We examined all participants age 50+, living independently, and interviewed by SHARE in 2015. We took into account their demographic characteristics such as age, gender, country, educational levels, and household ability to make ends meet. For mental health, we examined whether participants had depression and / or experienced loneliness. As for social network, we examined whether participants had a spouse, children, weekly contact with children, and participation in social activities such as voluntary or charity work, cared for a sick or disabled adult, provided help to friends or neighbours, attended an education or training course, gone to a sport, social or other kind of club, and taken part in activities of a religious organization (church, synagogue, mosque, etc.). With regards to being handicapped, participants were asked whether they had any limitations in their daily activities that lasts more than three months. Finally we measured happiness by asking the participants on their satisfaction with life and their quality of life.

In total, we examined 66,651 participants age 50+ living independently in 18 countries: northern- (Denmark, Sweden), southern- (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece), western- (Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland), eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Slovenia, Croatia), and Israel. The youngest participant was 50 years old and the oldest was 106 years old, average was 68 years old. Most were females and attended basic primary or secondary education. Almost 40% had difficulty making ends meet. Nearly 20% had limitations in their daily activities. With regards to mental health, participants had a median of two out of twelve depressive symptoms and almost half experienced loneliness. In terms of social network, around 70 % had a spouse and the median for having children was two. Around 65% had weekly contact with their children and the median number of activities participated in was two.

In general participants reported reasonably high levels of happiness. First, we found that while both mental health and social network were linked with happiness, only mental health had a strong, negative effect on happiness. Second, neither mental health nor social network affected the relation between being handicapped and happiness. This lack of influence is observed across all ages, from the youngest to the oldest. Third, we found that being handicapped lose its negative impact to enjoy a good life in later life. Figure 1 below shows that while being handicapped had a negative impact on happiness, the impact was strongest in the youngest age category and gradually became relatively unimportant for happiness in the oldest old. This age effect occurs because older people compare themselves with people their own age who are equally or more disabled; thus adopting a more accepting attitude towards their own handicap. This adaptation confirms theories postulating that people are satisfied when their perceived reality aligns with their desire or expectations, and that people can adjust to a gap between reality and expectations by shifting their norms downwards, or by adopting new values altogether.

Figure 1. Change in Happiness Due to Increase in Handicap Severity over Age Categories

Finally, although outside of the scope of this study, a notable finding is that out of the demographic characteristics, country of residence as well as household income had a big impact on happiness. This confirms the notion that wealthier countries report higher happiness than less wealthy countries because a population with a higher standard of living is better able to fulfill its basic needs. This enables inhabitants of wealthier countries to focus on improving other domains of life, thus leading to higher levels of happiness.

The article is based on:

Puvill, T., Kusumastuti, S., Lund, R., Mortensen, E.L., Slaets, J., Lindenberg, J., et al. (2019). Do psychosocial factors modify the negative association between disability and life satisfaction in old age? PLoS ONE, 14(10): e0224421. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224421

About the authors:

Sasmita Kusumastuti, Postdoctoral fellow at Section of Epidemiology, Department of Public Health and Center for Healthy Aging, University of Copenhagen, Denmark