How Levels of Engagement in Work, Volunteering & Caregiving Affect Well-Being

A recent study in The Gerontologist examined how psychological well-being is impacted by different types of engagement in productive activities, such as paid work, family caregiving, and volunteering. The study looked at this relationship for 330 adults in both middle and late life (ages 50 to 83, with an average age of 62), and examined what levels of engagement were associated with greater or worse psychological well-being. Four levels of engagement—none, low, medium, and high—were compared for paid work, volunteering, and caregiving.

Of the participants, 59 percent were involved in paid employment, 36 percent in volunteering, and 14 percent in caregiving. (Some participants were involved in more than one type of activity.) The three aspects of engagement measured for each of these activities were vigor (“At my work, I feel bursting with energy”), dedication (“I am enthusiastic about my job”), and absorption (“I am immersed in my work”). The low, medium, and high engagement classifications were created by splitting the groups of people who engaged in these activities into even thirds.

The researchers first compared the participants involved in the three types of productive engagement with those who did not perform that type of activity. In this analysis, no difference was found between the psychological well-being of those doing paid work or volunteering, and those who were not. In contrast, individuals involved in caregiving showed poorer psychological well-being compared to those who were not. However, this picture changed once levels of engagement were taken into account. Interestingly, among those who took part in paid work or volunteering activity, those individuals who had low or medium levels of engagement had significantly poorer psychological well-being compared to those who were not involved in paid work or volunteering. Yet those who had high levels of engagement in either paid work or volunteering had significantly greater psychological well-being than those who did not engage in these activities. For caregivers, a different pattern emerged: For these individuals, low and high levels of engagement were associated with poorer psychological well-being, compared to non-caregivers. However, those caregivers with medium levels of engagement showed higher psychological well-being compared to non-caregivers.

This research suggests that the positive psychological impact of productive roles may depend on an individual’s degree of engagement in such roles. It may not be enough to merely encourage volunteering in hopes of it having a positive psychological impact on an individual. Instead, this research suggests the psychological importance of finding volunteering activities in which the volunteer feels highly engaged. For caregivers, on the other hand, the research suggests that an intermediate level of engagement may lead to a positive psychological impact, but that too much or too little engagement could be psychologically detrimental. As the authors note, information about the subjective experiences of the individuals in any of these roles is important in order to determine whether such involvement is beneficial or not to midlife and older adults. Facilitating participation that can lead to positive psychological outcomes requires attention to the level of engagement of each participant.


Matz-Costa C, Besen E, James JB, et al. Differential impact of multiple levels of productive activity engagement on psychological well-being in middle and later life. The Gerontologist (2014); 54 (2): 277–289.

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