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A global survey shows women are more satisfied with their lives than men are

Women are happier than men. Or so they say.

Across the vast majority of countries where surveys have been conducted, the average woman responds that they have higher life satisfaction than the average man. When tens of thousands of people in over 100 countries were asked to assess how satisfied they are with their present lives, on aggregate, women score .03 points higher than men on a one to five scale. This may not seem like a lot, but it is actually quite a significant difference. In the US, it would be the equivalent of gaining about $3,000 in annual income (higher incomes strongly correlate with higher life satisfaction).

The economist Mallory Montgomery of University of Southern California found these survey results odd. Montgomery does happiness economics research, a burgeoning area of study that looks beyond wealth as the ultimate measure of whether someone is well off (economists are typically focused on money, not life satisfaction). Happiness economics surveys conducted by the public opinion research organization Gallup show that income, education, and health are all predictive of higher life satisfaction. Women generally have lower incomes, less education, and report worse health than men. Based on observable factors, women should actually be less happy, not more. And yet, when asked directly if they are happy, women are more likely to say they are then men.

Montgomery discovered a piece of the data that helped explain this apparent contradiction. In addition to being asked about their own life life satisfaction, survey respondents were also asked to assess the life satisfaction of hypothetical people—this was done in order to calibrate response scores. For example, both men and women scored the life satisfaction of the following theoretical person: “Think of a female who is 40 years old and happily married with a good family life. Her monthly family income is about [median income]. She has severe back pain, which keeps her awake at night.

Montgomery realized she could use these responses to better understand the happiness gender gap. Did women also think these hypothetical people were happier than men? It turned out they did. The average woman scored the hypothetical people .04 points higher in life satisfaction than the average man. Not only do women say they are more satisfied with their lives, they think others are most satisfied with their lives, too. Montgomery points out that if women and men’s responses are scored relative to how satisfied they think others are, women are indeed less happy than men.

Still, part of the puzzle remains unsolved. Why does the typical woman think people are generally more satisfied with life than the average man? Montgomery has one idea, though she notes it’s definitely just speculation for now: “I’m most convinced by the idea that, on average, women have had less to aspire to, so it’s easier to reach goals.”

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