Something in the Way she moves: a cross-country investigation of the happiness gender gap
Last modified: 2011-05-25
This paper investigates the existence and determinants of the happiness gender gap
across countries, building on a large sample of individuals from around 70 countries, and
constructing an original dataset composed with data from the World Values Survey, the
World Development Indicators and CIRI Human Rights. In particular, we examine the role
of rights, achievements and beliefs for female happiness, including the relevant
economical, political and social dimensions.
This study applies an empirical strategy similar to Stanca’s (2010) methodology. It
consists, first, on explaining the subjective well-being at individual level; second, on using
macro level conditions to explain the differences on the crucial variable (in our case, the
gender premium on happiness) across countries. For the first stage we use data from the
World Values Survey (WVS), with observations from 1980 to 2008, grouped in five waves.
For specifying the indicators of macro conditions we use additionally two other sources:
World Development Indicators (WDI) and Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) Human Rights data
Our theoretical background builds on a large body of literature.
In the last two decades, major developments of the neurosciences provided valuable
information about differences on male and female brain. This evidence yields new
biological support for the conventional belief that men and women are different, both for
cognitive processes and behavioural outcomes. These also shape different paths of social
interactions and, as such, the entire social process might also result in a different gender
On the literature of Economics and Happiness, gender is incorporated into the majority of
the works as a socio-demographic control variable. Few authors have given a bit closer
attention to this topic along the way (Easterlin, 2003; Blanchower and Oswald, 2004;
Marcelli and Easterlin, 2005; Bjrnskov et al., 2007; Plagnol and Easterlin, 2008; Stevenson
and Wolfers, 2008, 2009; Guven et al, 2009), while the latest contributions focused mostly
in the work and leisure spheres (see, for example, Berger, 2009; Gash et al., 2010;
Gimenez-Nadal and Sevilla-Sanz, 2010; Trzcinski and Holst, 2010). To our knowledge,
little has been done to frame the study in more encompassing terms, or in a worldwide
perspective. A first contribution of our paper is that we try to fill this “gender gap” of the
Moreover, evidences so far show that on average the two genders do not share the same
subjective levels of happiness: but there is no consensus on who is the happiest (see, for
example, Bjrnskov et al., 2007; Blanchower and Oswald, 2004). Nonetheless, the works of Stevenson and Wolfers (2008, 2009) and Plagnol and Easterlin
(2008), respectively, indicate shifts in the happiness gender gap: from favouring women to
favouring men, or disfavouring women later in life.
Following this state of art, we do not form a specific hypothesis on who is the happiest. In
fact, we later uncover that, with our dataset, Stevenson and Wolfers (2009)’s findings (that
women are less happy relatively to men) cannot be generalized: while women are happier
in most African and many developing countries, on the contrary they are less happy than
men in around 15 European and other industrialized countries.
Another important contribution of our paper is its test of the women’s rights contribution to
the gender gap, beside assessing the role of institutional variables.
A noteworthy approach to the issue of reaching a good life (or human flourishing), which
gives a particular attention to the female context, was developed by Martha Nussbaum
(Nussbaum and Glover, 1995 (eds); Nussbaum, 2000). In particular, Nussbaum (1995a)
shows evidence that no country in the world treats women as well as men, in different
respects: longevity, health, education, employment, political participation. In this respect,
Nussbaum understands that the internal features of persons should be institutionally
promoted if they should advantage of external resources and options. Hence,
Nussbaums’s theoretical work confirms our hypothesis that institutions, achievements and
the system of beliefs impact on people’s well-being.
In what regards institutions, the literature of gender and happiness has not much
specifically explored their role. Institutions though, have been shown to play an important
role on individual subjective well-being. A seminal contribution in this direction was given
by Frey and Stutzer (2000a, 2000b, 2002). Although not focusing in gender aspects, their
work provides us with empirical evidence that shows the importance of democracy to
individual well-being. They find that the greater the degree of democracy, the happier the
citizens are. We try to capture these sources of happiness to the gender context by using
variables of female political rights.
Other contributions consider the varying impact of civil rights on happiness. Ruut
Veenhoven (2000), for instance, provides intriguing results, when exploring the role of
freedom in subjective well-being of 46 nations. He finds that freedom is not always
positively related to happiness: it contributes positively to happiness in rich countries, but
not in poor ones. On the contrary, he uncovers that economic freedom is positively related
to happiness in poor countries but not in rich ones. Similarly, we try to test these relations
in a gender context, using measures of female economic and social rights.
Within this background, we form the main hypothesis that rights, achievements and beliefs
may respond for the happiness gender gap across countries. Preliminary results indicate
that women happiness might display a paradoxical component, where better objective
conditions do not grant them happiness. This prompts a more refined empirical test.
The paper is structured as follows: sections 2 and 3 present the methodology and the data
used for the econometric analysis, respectively; the results are presented in section 4;
section 5 concludes with a discussion of the main implications of the analysis.
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