On average worldwide, surveys consistently find that women report higher life satisfaction than men. Yet, women are worse off in many ways: They tend to be less educated, earn less, report worse health and enjoy fewer opportunities. Then why do women report higher life satisfaction than men do?
Based on her analysis of Gallup World Poll survey data from 102 countries including anchoring vignettes, economist Mallory Montgomery finds evidence that women are not happier than men.
In Montgomery's recently published paper, "Reversing the gender gap in happiness," she found men and women use response scales differently when they answer questions about life satisfaction, and after normalizing the response scales, women appear less happy than men do, on average.
On the surface, women do report higher life satisfaction than men do -- much higher.
Many researchers have documented the gap between women's and men's self-reported life satisfaction, using data from the Gallup World Poll, the General Social Survey, the DDB Needham Life Style Surveys, the World Values Survey and the European Social Survey.
For her study, Montgomery analyzed life satisfaction data from World Poll surveys collected in 102 countries between 2011 and 2014, using the following question, based on Cantril's ladder:
"Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?"
Taking a simple average of men's and women's life satisfaction ratings (where higher ratings equal more happiness), Montgomery found that women appear happier than men, despite their measurable disadvantages.
Using a standard ordered probit model, simply being female increased happiness as much as a significant bump in income did. But that model assumes that men's and women's responses are on the same scale.
Women and men may not rate their life satisfaction on the same scale, or they have different standards for what a good life is. Accounting for that, women rate their lives worse than men do.
By asking respondents to rate hypothetical vignette characters on the same scale as their self-reports, researchers can "anchor" their response scales, which enables them to compare response-scale use across people with differing characteristics such as gender, education level or country.
In the Gallup World Poll surveys from 2011 to 2014, after respondents answered the question about their life satisfaction, they were asked to rate the life satisfaction of each person in a set of six vignettes. Interviewers randomly asked about one of two possible vignette sets.
- 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. On which step of the ladder do you think this person stands?
- Think of a male who is 50 years old and divorced. He has a daughter with whom he has a good relationship. He has a secure job that pays about [twice median income]  per month. He has no serious health problems. On which step of the ladder do you think this person stands?
Montgomery found that women rated every single vignette significantly higher than men did, suggesting women tend to give higher ratings for the same life circumstances. This held true regardless of whether they were rating vignettes of men or women.
In fact, the differences between women's and men's vignette ratings were similar to the magnitude of the differences between women's and men's self-reports of their life satisfaction.
After Montgomery used a vignette-adjusted model to simulate women's life satisfaction ratings on men's response scales -- comparing them on the same scale -- she found women's life satisfaction was, on average, lower than men's.
Montgomery's analysis is an important contribution to the growing literature on the validity of life satisfaction self-reports at a crucial time.
Unhappiness has been rising worldwide for a decade, but almost every world leader missed it. Why? Because they were focused on measures like GDP and unemployment. Almost none of them were paying attention to how people were feeling, which underscores how important it is to measure life satisfaction.
However, just as leaders would be well-served to focus on measures beyond GDP and unemployment, Montgomery's findings underscore why it's important for them to consider more than self-reports of life satisfaction alone.