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We employ two decades of General Social Survey data consisting of 83 birth cohorts from 1893 to 1975 to estimate the influence of satisfaction in seven life domains (family, finances, work, health, friends, place of residence, and leisure time activity) on life-cycle happiness among men and women aged 18 to 89 years in the United States. The adult population is estimated to be happiest at age 51, and men are estimate to surpass women in happiness at age 48. Contrary to both genetic or personality (e.g., traditional gender role) and access to resources (“more is always better”) explanations of happiness, but consistent with a life-course domain-interaction adaptation model, we find that satisfaction with family, finances, work, and health explain much of the variation in average life-cycle happiness among both men and women. Individual life domain satisfactions, furthermore, appear to track objective life circumstances fairly well – except for finances, where satisfaction is estimated to rise despite declining income in elder years – thus psychological adaptation is of limited value in explaining either average domain-specific or global subjective well-being. Lastly, we find little evidence that men or women modify the importance they place on various life domains even as circumstances within these change over the life cycle, and we estimate a positive “pure effect of age” on happiness for both genders. Rather than relying exclusively on a conventional bottom-up economic or top-down psychological approach to studying happiness, our results suggest that an integration of methods and theories from economics, psychology, sociology, and gerontology offers a more useful means for understanding gender differences in life-cycle happiness.


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