Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Gender, Aging, and Subjective Well-Being

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Gender, Aging, and Subjective Well-Being

Article excerpt

Introduction: Happiness and Aspiration-Adjustment

Are men happier than women? Almost every study that has addressed this question has found only minimal gender-related differences in subjective well-being. This might seem surprising. In almost every society on earth, men have higher incomes, more prestigious jobs, and more authority than women--all of which are linked with relatively high levels of subjective well-being. The obvious expectation would be for women to show lower levels of happiness than men. Nevertheless, surveys carried out in many countries have consistently found that men and women have similar levels of happiness, overall life satisfaction, and other global measures of subjective well-being.

Previous studies have found that differences in income, education, occupation, gender, marital status, and other demographic characteristics explain surprisingly little of the variation in people's levels of subjective well-being. As one would expect, those with higher incomes report somewhat higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than those with lower incomes, but the differences are small, generally explaining no more than 4 percent of the variation--and education, occupation, age, religiosity, and gender explain even less--with gender showing particularly small effects (Andrews and Withey 1976; Barnes et al. 1979; Inglehart 1990; Myers and Diener 1995). This persistent finding has been explained in terms of "aspiration adjustment" (Campbell, Converse, and Rodgers 1976; Andrews and Withey 1976) and "set-point" (Lykkens and Tellegen 1996) models, both of which postulate that: (1) recent changes, such as receiving a raise or losing one's job, can have a major impact on an individual's well-being--bu t that people's aspirations adjust to their level of achievement. After some time, they report about the same level of well-being as they did before the change, returning to the individual's normal "set-point;" but (2) different individuals have different set-points. Year after year, some people display higher levels of well-being than others (Costa, McCrae, and Zonderman 1987).

Thus, although in the short run, a raise in salary, or a promotion to a more prestigious job has the effect one would expect (tending to bring higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction), in the long run, people adjust their aspiration levels to their attainment level. After some time, one returns to one's normal baseline level of subjective well-being. Aspiration adjustment also works in the opposite direction. Negative changes bring lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction in the short run, but in the long term, one adjusts one's aspiration level to the new conditions and eventually experiences about the same level of well-being as before.

Consequently, within any given society, subjective well-being varies surprisingly little across any stable characteristic such as gender (a life-long characteristic for most people). An individual's income may vary a good deal over time, so happiness does vary according to one's income if it has recently changed; but one's gender is a permanent characteristic, which means that when they are surveyed, most people have long since adapted to the advantages and disadvantages of being male or female.

Subjective well-being levels do vary a good deal cross-culturally: given that societies are characterized by relatively high or low baseline levels of happiness and life satisfaction which are reasonably stable over time (see Diener and Suh 2000). But within any given society, one generally finds only minor differences between the happiness levels of men and women. Thus, Inglehart (1990) analyzed data from all Euro-Barometer surveys carried out from 1980 through 1986 in twelve West European countries, plus the 1981-1982 World Values Survey data from the United States, Canada, Hungary, and Japan. …

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