Less able to achieve their life goals, women end up unhappier than men later in life, even though they start out happier, a new survey of Americans suggests.
Early in adult life, women are more likely than men to fulfill their family life and financial aspirations, leading to greater overall happiness.
Later in life, however, the tables turn and men report coming closer to reaching their goals for consumer goods and family life. Men are more satisfied with their financial situation and family life, and are happier than women in later life, the study shows.
Here are some age milestones found in the study, detailed in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies:
- 41: Age at which men's financial satisfaction exceeds women's financial satisfaction.
- 48: Age at which men's overall happiness exceeds women's overall happiness.
- 64: Age at which men's satisfaction with family life exceeds women's satisfaction.
Marriage and money
In two nationally representative surveys of men and women in the United States, the researchers found that happiness and satisfaction with life boil down to the gap between what you want and what you have. And since both factors vary throughout life, so does a person's respective sense of well-being.
In their early 20s, about 90 percent of men and women say they want to be happily married. That comes sooner for women, who get married at a much earlier age than men on average, contributing to higher satisfaction with family life, the study results show.
It's the shortfall between wanting a happy marriage and actually attaining it that translates into a cheery outlook in that part of one's life.
"For men it's less of a shortfall when they are older, because that's when they tend to be married and when women have already experienced things like divorce and widowhood," said lead researcher Anke Plagnol, a sociologist and economist at the University of Cambridge in England.
At age 39, men and women in the study showed about the same shortfall between their aspirations and attainments for a happy marriage. Even so, women's satisfaction with family life stayed boosted until about age 64, as compared with men's life satisfaction. Children could be the key to their fulfillment, Plagnol said.
"For women, often children are very important and more fulfilling than for men, so that can be something that sustains their satisfaction with family life," she said.
Plagnol and researcher Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, found a similar phenomenon for a person's financial satisfaction. Early in life, women are more likely to fulfill their aspirations for big-ticket material items, such as a home, car and vacation home. One reason for the material boon: Women in the United States tend to marry slightly older men at a young age.
"Usually people who are married have a better financial situation since often they have double incomes," Plagnol said. "They also are more likely to fulfill their financial aspirations."
The study also found that both men and women believe they need more to be happy as they get older. For example, when asked to choose from a list of 10 items the things they think they will need to achieve happiness, young men and women tended to choose three or four. These items included everything from a home, a car, children, or really nice clothes.
In contrast, older men and women picked an average of six items.
The results of the study not only speak to happiness levels of men and women — they also contain a message for economists and even public policy makers.
For one, stuff doesn't equal happiness.
"It's generally assumed, including by public policy makers, whether you're healthy and you own a lot of stuff are the two most important things in whether you are satisfied in life," said Gregg Easterbrook, who was not involved in the study. "And research consistently does not find this, including this study." Easterbrook is author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" (Random House, 2004) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute.
In addition, people's desires change over time.
"In economic theory, one of the assumptions is that preferences are stable so you basically don't change your wants. But we see the wants do change, that people really adapt to achievement," Plagnol told LiveScience. "So when they attain goods then they want more goods."
She added, "What that means for happiness is quite interesting. It means that when you acquire something in the material goods domain, it will not really increase your happiness because you just adjust your aspirations."
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.