The twentieth century has seen the proportion of individuals that live to old age rise dramatically, close to 50 percent of the population now reach the age of 75 (Baltes and Graf, 1996). This rise has meant that individuals who live to old age are no longer considered exceptional, they are now in fact the norm (Baltes and Graf, 1996). Recently, much research has gone into studying aging, and because risks for functional disabilities rise with age, researchers are particularly interested in successful aging.
A major problem in studying successful aging is that the concept can be defined in a number of ways. One particular definition is that successful aging refers to the extent to which individuals are happy or satisfied with their own lives (Bee, 2000). A number of approaches have attempted to measure the concept of successful aging, such as measures of happiness, well-being and life satisfaction (Diener, 1984, cited in Bee, 2000). A popular approach is the scale constructed by Bradburn (1969), which takes into account both positive and negative feelings (cited in Bee, 2000). The negative feelings include emotions such as loneliness, depression, boredom, restlessness, or being upset with criticism and the positive emotions include feeling on top of the world, excited or interested in something, pleased with accomplishment and pride (Bradburn, 1969, cited in Bee, 2000). Summed together, the positive and negative emotions produce "affect balance" (Bradburn, 1969, cited in Bee, 2000).
It appears that age has a very little systematic relationship to the level of reported well-being (Bee, 2000). A nine-year longitudinal study conducted on nearly 5000 adults aged between 25 and 65 found that age groups did not differ in average level of satisfaction, and there was no significant change in satisfaction with age (Costa, Zonderman, McCrae, Cornoni-Huntley, Locke & Barbano, 1987). This study also indicates that although the overall age score is the same across age, younger adults may experience emotions (both positive and negative) more strongly than older adults (Bee, 2000). Further, the factors that contribute to life satisfaction change with age, for example, health is a more significant predictor of life satisfaction among older adults than it is among young adults (Bearon, 1989, cited in Bee, 2000).
Some factors that have been associated with successful aging are better education, high income, non-smoking, more exercise and better mental health (Jorm, Christensen, Henerson, Jacomb, Korten and Mackinnon, 1998).
Current views and expectations about aging, are influenced by general societal beliefs and stereotypes (Baltes and Graf, 1996). Survey research has found that personal and societal expectations about old age are generally negative, with most people regarding old age as a period of decline and decreased frailty (Baltes and Graf, 1996). Therefore instead of looking forward to old age, most people want to remain young (Baltes and Graf, 1996). For instance, biology defines aging as that period in life when biological systems lose their efficacy and functioning
(Baltes and Graf, 1996). This limited definition, therefore, links aging to decline and deficits, which may prevent people from discovering whatever potential growth remains (Baltes and Graf, 1996). This, therefore, brings forward the point of psychological characteristics in older age.
Currently, our understanding of the disablement process of old age remains incomplete (Seeman et al. 1999). Evidence suggests that there is a lack of one-to-one relationship between functional abilities and actual levels of reported functioning (Seeman et al. 1999). This raises the question as to why some individuals appear to function at lower levels than would be predicted by their apparent functional "capacity" (Seeman et al. 1999). Psychological characteristics, such as self-efficacy beliefs, are believed to play a role in this pattern of relationships (Seeman et al. 1999). Self-efficacy beliefs reflect the individual’s perceptions or assessments of their ability to produce given levels of performance, that is, to perform specific behaviours successfully (Seeman et al. 1999). Such beliefs influence the types of activity people choose to engage in, the level of effort they expend, their perseverance when faced with difficulties, and the thought patterns and emotional reactions they experience (Bandura, 1981, 1986, 1988, cited in Seeman et al. 1999). Specifically, individuals with weaker self-efficacy beliefs tend to curtail their range of activities and put forth less effort, with less perseverance, in those they undertake (Bandura, 1981, 1986, cited in Seeman, 1999). Consequently, those that display such a pattern of avoidance will be less experienced with successful performance of such behaviour, possible contributing to greater likelihood of perceiving oneself as being unable to perform such behaviours and to self-report functional disability (Seeman et al. 1999). Self-efficacy beliefs have been shown to influence levels of activity among various patient populations, including those with coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis and chronic pain. Bandura (1977) believed that self-efficacy beliefs are hypothesised to influence the likelihood of that behaviour being performed (cited in Seeman et al. 1999). Indeed research has demonstrated that self-efficacy beliefs continue to exert important, significant effects on patterns of older adults more generally (Seeman et al. 1999). Studies conducted on older adults (aged 71 and above) have found that self-efficacy beliefs regarding the ability to perform various activities of daily living (ADL) without falling are associated with higher self-reported levels of physical and social functioning (Tinetti et al. 1994, cited in Seeman et al. 1994). However, it has also been found that more generalised measures of self-efficacy beliefs also predict behaviour (Seeman et al. 1999).
A longitudinal study conducted on a cohort of older men and women, aged between 70 and 79 found that self-efficacy beliefs have significant impacts on perceptions of functional disability, independent of actual underlying physical abilities (Seeman, Unger, McAvay & Mendes de Leon, 1999). Therefore, through such influences on perceptions of disability, self-efficacy beliefs may importantly affect lifestyles and quality of life at older ages (Seeman et al. 1999).