Women live longer, men happier

In all European countries, women have a significantly higher life expectancy than men, but the extra years rarely bring them joy.

By Thomas Muller Published: 19.05.2018, 09:10

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Good news: In Germany, men can still hope for 20 happy years at age 50, according to a study

Good news: In Germany, men at 50 can still hope for 20 happy years, according to a study.

© Thomas Mucha / stock.adobe.com

BARCELONA. Some men may feel it’s unfair that men are laid to rest significantly earlier than women. A small consolation: Apparently this will save them a lot of suffering in their old age. A sudden heart attack or driving at 200 km/h on the highway may significantly shorten life expectancy, but they also ensure that men go happily out of life more often than women. At least, that is what can be deduced from a Europe-wide study. This took a close look not only at the life expectancy of today’s 50-year-olds, but also at how many of their remaining years are spent in happiness and contentment.

The good news: In Germany, men can still hope for 20 happy years at the age of 50, and women for 22. Of the four additional years of life that women in Germany can expect to live compared to men, this means that every second one is a good. In most other countries, by contrast, women are less happy with their longer lives.

This is the conclusion reached by a team led by Aida Sole-Auro of the University of Barcelona after analyzing the "Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe", SHARE for short, published in the European Journal of Public Health (doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/cky070). The survey was conducted between 2010 and 2011. Almost 57 people took part in it.000 people over 49 from 16 European countries. However, the contribution of the individual countries varied greatly. Almost 6800 Estonians took part, but only 1600 people from Germany. Such differences do not make cross-country comparisons easy, so the results for Germany in particular should be viewed with reservations.

Happiness lives in Switzerland and Denmark

In SHARE, participants were asked, among other things, how satisfied they currently are with their lives. She was able to quantify her satisfaction with a numerical value between 0 and 10. Sole-Auro and her colleagues defined participants with scores between 8 and 10 as happy. They assumed that happiness and satisfaction were largely understood synonymously.

According to the study, the happiest men between the ages of 50 and 54 live in Switzerland. According to the definition of the researchers around Sole-Auro, 86% are considered happy in these countries; in Estonia, the prevalence of happiness was the lowest at 35. The happiest women of this age live in Denmark, the unhappiest in Estonia (happiness prevalence 87 versus 37 %).

When the researchers looked at the participants over the age of 80, the prevalence of happiness among women and men was highest in Switzerland (77 and 80 % respectively), while women in Portugal (42 %) and men in Estonia (47 %) felt the least happy. Overall, men expressed slightly more satisfaction than women in almost all countries in the survey.

Using national mortality statistics, the researchers calculated life expectancy for 50-year-olds in each country. This was lowest for women and men in Hungary (30 and 24 years). In contrast, 50-year-old women in France and Spain can still hope for just under 36 years of life, while men in Switzerland can expect 32 years. Germany is in the middle of the pack with a remaining life expectancy of 34 years for women and around 29 years for men. The largest difference between the sexes was in Estonia (7.6 years), the smallest in Sweden (3.4 years).

Using the proportion of happy SHARE participants in each age group, the researchers calculated the number of years of happy life still to be expected among 50-year-olds. The number of happy years is highest for both women and men in Switzerland (29 and 27 years), while the least happy years are for women in Portugal and men in Estonia (12 and 9 years). In Switzerland, therefore, a 50-year-old man can expect around three times more happy years than in Estonia.

The situation is particularly sad for women in Portugal: Although they live five years longer than men there, they are left with one year less in happiness. So women seem to be significantly unhappier than men in Portugal.

Only Danish women enjoy every extra year

But in most other European countries, too, the extra years of life are often no cause for joy for women. In purely arithmetical terms, luck is with them in less than half of these years; in Southern Europe in particular, it is hardly to be seen any more. In Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany, happiness and unhappiness are almost equally distributed in the additional years of life; only in Denmark do women seem to enjoy practically every one of the years they live longer than their male fellow citizens; only there do three more years of life for women also mean three more years of happiness.

It is also interesting to see a breakdown of expected happy years by age. For example, women in Portugal seem to be much unhappier than men, especially between the ages of 50 and 70, after which the prevalence of happiness evens out more and more. The opposite is true for women in Germany: they apparently feel happier than men in middle age, but unhappier in old age. In contrast, in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Estonia and Denmark, there are hardly any gender differences in happiness prevalence beyond age 75.

The analysis suggests some remarkable conclusions: women across Europe not only have a higher life expectancy than men, they also have more years of happiness in absolute terms. Relatively speaking, however, women spend the extra years more often in unhappiness than in happiness, especially in countries of Southern and Eastern Europe.

The reason is not so easy to explain. In absolute terms, the number of happy years of life still to be expected seems to be high, especially in countries with high prosperity and a functioning health care system. Accordingly, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries have the lead here.

However, the researchers find no plausible explanation for the gender differences. Perhaps it is mainly women in Portugal who bear the brunt of the economic crisis. But why are older French or Italian women so unhappy, even though they live longer than Swiss and Danish women??

France is also the only European country where older women rate their health status worse than men do. Again, the question is why? Finally, French women live on average six years longer than French men.

Probably such questions cannot be answered with a simple 10-point scale for satisfaction. Here, researchers would probably have to apply somewhat more complex methods.

The most important things in a nutshell

Question: Women live longer than men, but are happier too?

Response: Most of the extra years of life are not perceived as particularly happy by women.

Meaning: Men die earlier and happier.

Limitation: The results are based on a single question, the definition of happiness is very imprecise, the economic crisis in Southern Europe may have influenced the results.

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