If girls just want to have fun, as Cyndi Lauper belted out in 1983, does that mean boys are serious stoics? Lauper probably wasn't trying to make a sociological statement in her head-bopping anthem, but her lyrics point to a much-debated question about gender differences. In studying the relative happiness of people across the globe, do men and women exhibit distinctive emotional characteristics? In short, is one sex generally happier than the other?
It's important to note that evaluating happiness isn't a highly precise scientific undertaking. For one thing, happiness is a subjective term, and there's no universal measurement for it. Though someone smiles on the outside, it doesn't mean that his or her apparent joy reflects internally. Similarly, a lot of studies related to happiness rely on self-reporting. One survey that economists from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania have used simply asks respondents to rate themselves on whether they are "very happy," "pretty happy" or "not happy." The resulting statistics don't take into account the nuances and background information of why and how people scored themselves.
Despite the potential pitfalls of empirical happiness studies, we can draw some conclusions about who the happiest sociological groups of people are. Generally, older people are happier than younger ones. Wealth and good health also give us something to smile about more often. Yet when it comes to the happiness gender gap, things aren't so cut and dried.
The 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project that surveyed 38,000 men and women across 44 countries lends insight into the disparities between male and female happiness. Overall, women scored themselves as more satisfied with their lives than men [source: Pew Research Center]. Moreover, women from certain countries, including Pakistan, Japan and Argentina, appeared significantly happier. The differences between what affects men and women's levels of happiness explains this slight gender gap. Women, for instance, tend to focus on personal and domestic problems, while men concern themselves more with matters outside of the home.
This variation in values is also reflected in how the recent recession has affected people's happiness. According to a Nielson Happiness Survey conducted in 51 countries, men's happiness hasn't weathered the economic storm well since they attach more importance to financial success than women. On the other hand, the women surveyed indicated they appreciated quality relationships above all [source: Reuters].
But women shouldn't start celebrating the good news just yet.
Do Men Get the Last Laugh?
In the United States and other developed countries, women have a lot to be happy about. More than ever before, they can enjoy the same educational and career opportunities as men. Even at home, domestic dynamics have become more of a shared burden rather than women's work. Somehow, amid the progress, a 2008 analysis from economists at the University of Pennsylvania found that American women today aren't as happy as they were 30 years ago. The authors of the paper explain the decline in happiness in terms of skyrocketing unemployment rates -- from 4 percent to 12.5 percent [source: Wilson Quarterly].
Princeton economists have also come to the same conclusion about women's sagging happiness. By exploring how much women enjoy common activities, such as gardening or watching television, it seemed that they spend more time on less gratifying undertakings. In any given week, women spend an average of 90 more minutes than men performing "unpleasant" tasks [source: Leonhardt]. This trend likely relates back to women's achievements in recent decades. With more prospects outside of the home, many women are experiencing difficulty balancing a career and a family, which saps happiness.
Age has also emerged as a determining factor for whether men or women are the happier sex in the United States. A study in the Journal of Happiness Studies established 48 as the benchmark age when men's happiness overtakes women's. As younger adults, women find more joy in building families and lasting relationships, while men are struggling to climb the job ladder. By middle age, the tables supposedly turn as women face the disappointment of not realizing life goals and men reach theirs. Then, at 64, men begin to appreciate their families even more than women [source: Byner]. But that age-happiness correlation may be tied to geography. Across the pond, a 2008 University College London survey found that women 50 years old and older are more optimistic than their male counterparts [source: Alleyne].
So who wins the happiness battle of the sexes? At the end of the day, both males and females can look forward to sunnier old age. No matter the number of X chromosomes, adults show a consistent spike in reported happiness once mid-life crises subside.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Alleyne, Richard. "Women happier than men and enjoy life more in old age." Telegraph. July 18, 2008. (May 5, 2009)http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/yourview/2419573/Are-women-happier-than-men.html
- Bryner, Jeanna. "Older Men Happier Than Older Women." LiveScience. Aug. 1, 2008. (May 5, 2009)http://www.livescience.com/culture/080801-men-happier.html
- Grohol, John M. "Men Happier Than Women?" PsychCentral. Sept. 26, 2007. (May 5, 2009)http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2007/09/26/men-happier-than-women/
- Leonhardt, David. "He's Happier, She's Less So." The New York Times. Sept. 26, 2007. (May 5, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/26/business/26leonhardt.html
- Mayo Clinic Women's Healthsource. "Older, Wiser -- Happier." Mayo Clinic. Vol. 12. No. 12. December 2008.
- Pew Research Center. "Global Gender Gaps: Women Like Their Lives Better." Oct. 29, 2003. (May 5, 2009)http://people-press.org/commentary/?analysisid=71
- Reuters. "Women find happiness is not about the economy, stupid." Dec. 9, 2008. (May 5, 2009)http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE4B85BH20081209
- Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Happiness Paradoxes." Wilson Quarterly. Vol. 32. Issue 4. Autumn 2008.