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OnderzoekUrban and Regional Studies InstitutePopulation Research Centre

Subjective well-being of the elderly in Islamabad, Pakistan

Principal researcher

Rizwan Ul Haq

Type of research

PhD research


Professor Leo van Wissen, Professor Inge Hutter

PhD Defense

June 21 2012

Summary of the project

Reduced fertility and mortality rates have changed the composition of the world’s population with different implications in the developed and developing regions of the world. Developed countries face the problem of ageing societies with most obvious implication of increase in the older-age dependency ratio, which ultimately results in a large growth in national expenditures to support the elderly. In developing countries the phenomenon of ageing follows a different scenario, as the percentage share of old people is quite low as compared to the developed world; the absolute numbers of the elderly population in poor countries are much higher than those residing in rich regions of the world.Further, as the population of developing countries is generally poor, ageing in these countries is normally associated with poverty, social security and health-related issues. The situation of the elderly population is Pakistan is no different from other developing countries. The problem of the ever-increasing elderly population has not received much attention from both researchers and policymakers in Pakistan. Further, those studies, which mainly focus on this segment of the population, address the issue of poverty or health. With the main focus of research on the elderly concentrated on income or health-related issues, people’s perspective regarding their well-being was ignored altogether. In this study, therefore, we focus on the emic perspective on well-being, which is normally denoted as subjective well-being, that is, a person’s appraisal of his/her life. It has been acknowledged that SWB is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a good life at the personal as well as societal level. The overarching aim of this thesis is:

To obtain a detailed insight into the determinants of the subjective well-being of the elderly in Pakistan

Researchers have identified two interrelated yet distinguishable components of SWB: a global appraisal of one’s life as a whole, commonly known as the cognitive component of SWB; and an emotional component comprising positive and negative emotions, called the affective component of SWB. SWB is an outcome of an evaluative process which may be based on comparison between current circumstances and the desired state, whereas goals are connoted with the desired state, and are regarded as a forerunner to SWB. With regard to goals as the desired state, we focused on the relationship of goals with the subjective well-being of the elderly in this study. In the fields of both psychology and economics various theories on well-being have been developed, but they are not without limitations. Lindenberg (1996) proposed a theory, named social production function (SPF) theory, which overcomes the shortcomings of theories of aforementioned disciplines. The SPF theory not only proposes a list of goals but also a hierarchical structure that encapsulates a substitution process among these goals – a theory which we have employed in the current study.

This theory proposes that fulfillment of hierarchical structured goals leads to higher levels of well-being while identifying two universal goals of social and physical well-being at the top. Lower order goals serve as instrument goals for achieving the universal goals. Moreover, the theory allows limited substitution among goals. As this theory was proposed in a Western context, we first aimed to ground this theory in the Pakistani setting in order to explore culturally relevant goals and to refine the conceptualization of various goals, named as the aspects of goals, among the elderly residing in Pakistan.

From the qualitative explorative study it was revealed that apart from two universal goals, the elderly in Islamabad regard their life after death as another universal goal. Religiosity was found to be the main aspect of this goal.

Furthermore, the SPF theory deals only with the achievement of goals, while ignoring the other important features of attainability and commitment. We, therefore, include attainability of and commitment of to goals, as well as progress towards achievement, in our conceptual model to better understand the relationship between SWB and goals. Based on the findings of the qualitative explorative study we designed a quantitative survey for quantifying the relationship between different features of goals – attainability, commitment and progress – and that of different components of SWB.

Findings of the sample survey showed a substantial degree of congruence with the qualitative research as far as aspects of various goals are concerned. Further, afterlife well-being was proved to be the most important goal, followed by the goals of comfort and affection, in terms of perceived commitment of the elderly. On the other hand, the goal of stimulation was found to be the goal with least commitment. Moreover, the elderly perceived all the goals as highly attainable. Finally, on the progress scale, the elderly perceived goals of stimulation and afterlife well-being as the least achieved goals.

Elderly people reported higher levels of the frequency of those emotions which may be closely related with religion. Contentment is translated as qanaát – a feeling of contentment to God regardless of the person’s living condition. Further, a huge majority of the population under study reported being satisfied with their life. The results show that the elderly in Islamabad reported slightly higher levels of satisfaction as compared to those reported by a previous study on Pakistani Muslims. In addition, life satisfaction was more closely related with positive affect and this is what is generally assumed regarding the association of the SWB components.

Different features – commitment, attainability and progress – of goals included in the study were not very strongly interrelated, which articulated more strongly the need for their inclusion in the studying goals-SWB relationship. Among the three features perceived attainability of goals shape the relation of other two goals with SWB. As in this study the elderly perceived all the goals as attainable showing that lack of attainability is not a constraint to achieve SWB, we concentrated on other two features for devising the methodology for studying goal-SWB relationship.

The inclusion of commitment to goals along with their progress gives some advantage to the methodology we adopted in this study over previously used methodologies which incorporate progress alone of different goals. Theoretical advantages of incorporating the commitment to different goals along with their progress rest in the fact that progress towards achieving a goal is not the only factor which explains different components of SWB, as this relationship is mediated by commitment to these goals; goals to which one is more committed add more to SWB as compared to goals to which one is less committed. Moreover, capturing the trade-off between progress on its own and the interaction between progress and commitment is a built-in feature of the newly proposed model. Further, our methodology captures the effect of progress in unimportant goals in enhancing SWB.

If we look at the results, advancing from the simple model to the most sophisticated that incorporates progress with varying modifying coefficients for commitment, we note two types of difference. First, there is a slight improvement in the fit of the model which employs life satisfaction and negative affect as dependent variables with the addition of commitment. Second, we obtain different sets of significant goals in progress-only models and the non-linear models that include both progress and commitment. The results of both models, to some extent, would ultimately lead us to different interpretations. Furthermore, the coefficients of the interaction between commitment and progress for explaining all three SWB components were highly significant. This confirms that non-linear models including progress and commitment have added value compared to progress-only models, both from a theoretical point of view, as well as from an empirical point of view. If commitment plays a role in combination with progress (as our models show) then not taking commitment into account may lead to biased and inconsistent results.

From the results of the proposed non-linear model, status, affection and comfort were found to be the most important goals in the lives of the elderly for achieving higher levels of life satisfaction, experiencing positive affect more frequently and negative emotions less often. The main source of realizing the goals of status and affection were found to be family members, especially children, thereby proving to be the most important factor in achieving higher levels of SWB among the elderly in Pakistan. Apart from that, the goal of afterlife well-being proved to be an important predictor for achieving higher levels of life satisfaction but failed to establish any relationship with the affective component of SWB.

The relationship of pursuit of goals cannot be fully understood without understanding the time perspective attached to the success of the goals. From qualitative interviews it became clear that some of the goals were closely related with the current events, for example, the goal of comfort. Other goals are more related with future events, for instance, afterlife well-being. Further, some may have a mixture of both; their success may be related with both current happenings and distal events, such as memories pertaining to events in the past and hope for the future. For example, the elderly perceived the acknowledgment of resources: skills, habits, inner qualities and monetary assets as an aspect of status and this aspect may be related with some events in the past.

Further, only the current events were quite closely related with progress alone of these goals, without any significant contribution of commitment to these goals. Distal events, both in the past or the future were found to be more closely related with the level of commitment to these goals.

Among the SWB components, life satisfaction was more closely related with the commitment to goals, implying that commitment to goals was a necessary but not sufficient condition for explaining life satisfaction. Further, commitment to goals mediated only for those goals whose success was either achieved in the past or is anticipated in the future; implying that commitment to those goals whose success may be related to current events – for example the goal of comfort –did not contribute substantially in explaining any of the SWB components. Moreover, negative affect was more closely related with current events, and was explained by progress alone with a very minimal share of commitment to goals. Positive affect, however, was explained by both progress alone and its interaction with commitment. Further, positive affect was explained by both types of goals: those with success in distal or in current events.

Family, especially children, were found to be quite important – as the main production factors of two important goals of status and affection – for achieving higher levels of SWB among the elderly, as not only their well-being is connected with that of their children’s but also the elderly perceive passing on responsibilities as being of utmost importance. Thus it is necessary to study the implications of higher SWB levels of the elderly on their family members; why other family members devote their time, energy and resources to please their elders; and how the SWB of household members is mutually related. These findings stress the need for studies focusing on SWB at the level of the household.

Finally, the results this study imply that in the wake of much needed economic development and opportunities offered by economic dividend, findings that underline the importance of young intimates, especially male offspring, for enhancing the well-being of the older generation should be kept in mind. Policies, for example, encouraging old folk’s homes, should also be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis with regard to different dimensions – objective as well as that of perceptions – of well-being at societal as well as personal levels of all segments of society.

Last modified:03 November 2014 1.49 p.m.