July 30, 2008 -- Women start out as happy young adults but by midlife wind up the sadder sex, says a new study on satisfaction related to financial circumstances and family life, which past research has shown play a significant role in well-being and happiness.
Researchers analyzed decades of national data on 47,000 men and women to create a statistical model that shows women's happiness decreases, while men's increases, exceeding women's by age 48.
"Our approach looks at the aspirations people have and how well they fulfill them," says economist Anke Plagnol, at the University of Cambridge in England, the study's lead author.
"Satisfaction depends on how far people fulfill their aspirations," she says.
Plagnol and co-author Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California, used data from Roper surveys and from the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago.
The study, to be published in the next issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies, says that early in adult life, women are more likely than men to fulfill their aspirations for material goods and family life, but later, they may be divorced or separated and less financially secure. Meanwhile, men's finances and family life improve, making them "the happier of the two genders," the study says.
Economist David Blanchflower of Dartmouth University, one of several researchers who have studied the effects of age on happiness, says this new research is "really important work" because it shows how people form aspirations differently.
This study looked only at satisfaction with finances and family; other researchers say future studies need to delve into other factors that might affect happiness, such as divorce and religiosity.
"Marriage and religion are two of the biggest factors in life satisfaction," says Arthur Brooks, a Syracuse University economist.