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New study examines happiness among men, women

September 07, 2011

According to a new study, the levels of happiness may be more similar among men and women than previously thought.

New data from the DDB Needham Life Style Survey finds that men and women between 1985 and 2005 experienced nearly identical decreases in life satisfaction.  Both sexes felt comparable drops in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in physical and mental health.

This is contrary to a controversial paper published in 2009 by professors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which claimed that women’s self-reported happiness declined between 1972 and 2006 but men’s happiness was unchanged.

Chris Herbst, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs, says this new analysis, which was recently published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, points to a population-wide decline in happiness over the last 20 years. 

“Americans, regardless of gender, age, marital status, and labor market outcomes, experienced deteriorating life satisfaction and self-confidence, as well as increases in a range of physical and mental health problems,” Herbst said. “In contrast to Stevenson and Wolfers’ results, men have not been immune to the downward shift in subjective well-being.”

To explain the widespread decline in happiness, Herbst finds that Americans have become increasingly detached from friends and family, participated in fewer civic and social activities, and expressed greater mistrust over political and economic institutions over the past few decades. These societal changes are important because, according to Robert Putnam’s 2000 book "Bowling Alone," communal activities tend to improve what is known as “social capital” and thus increase individual happiness.

“It is difficult to believe that changes of this magnitude could have influenced women’s well-being without also influencing men’s,” Herbst said.