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Subjective well-being in the second half of life: The influence of family and household resources

This thesis uses data from the first wave of the Norwegian Life Course, Ageing and Generation (NorLAG) study (N=5189) to examine the influence of family and household resources on domain satisfactions and global subjective well-being (SWB) (life satisfaction, positive affect, negative affect) in midlife and old age (age 40–79). Analyses pay specific attention to gender and age cohort as potential moderators of these influences. The thesis comprises three papers that focus on the effect on SWB of (i) marital status, (ii) parental status, and (iii) financial status.

The results show that of the family variables, having a partner is the major determinant of well-being across gender and age groups. SWB cleavages among unpartnered (never-married, divorced/separated, widowed) and partnered groups of individuals (married, cohabiting) are comparably negligible. The contrast between marrieds and cohabitors is studied in detail, questioning what seems to be an accepted fact among U.S. researchers, namely that cohabitation confers fewer emotional benefits than does marriage. In Norway, where cohabitation is much more widespread and socially and legally supported than in the United States, cohabitation per se is not qualitatively different from marriage. However, never-married cohabitors, but not formerly married cohabitors, report lower levels of relationship satisfaction and global SWB compared to their married counterparts. This finding indicates that the meaning of cohabitation may differ according to prior marital status, and underscores the importance of categorizing cohabitors and married persons by prior marital history.

Furthermore, previous work—predominantly from North America (United States and Canada)—has largely debunked the popular assumption that people need children in order to be fulfilled by showing that children tend to have either no effect or a detrimental effect on SWB. This thesis moderates this assertion by finding that, across gender, age, and a wide range of outcomes, children have no net effect on sense of well-being with the exception, among women, of small incremental life satisfaction and self-esteem associated with having children. Furthermore, the results reviewed and presented indicate somewhat more positive effects of parenthood in the Nordic countries than in the United States, highlighting the role of social policies in shaping the impact of parental status on well-being.

Turning to financial factors, this thesis looks at the effect of income, property assets, savings, and debt on financial satisfaction and global SWB. Although an extensive literature exists on the impact of money on well-being, the understanding of this relationship is incomplete due to the lack of measurement of financial resources other than income. As researchers tend to focus solely on income, little is known about other monetary sources of SWB. This is an important omission considering the direct influence of assets, savings, and debt on people’s overall financial situation, and qualitative research claiming that the presence of wealth and debt can have substantial psychological consequences. By including a wide range of financial variables this thesis re-examines three “accepted truths” in the literature: (i) that money has little impact on SWB, (ii) that the impact of money on SWB attenuates in older age cohorts, and (iii) that higher financial satisfaction despite lower income in old age is a “paradox” attributable to low aspirations and expectations among older individuals.

First, the analyses show that each of the financial variables has a strong independent effect on financial satisfaction reports. Income and savings are the strongest predictors, followed by debt and property assets. Second, although the effect of income on financial satisfaction declines in older age groups, the effects of property assets, financial assets, and debt do not vary significantly by age cohort. At all stages of the life course, therefore, objective economic circumstances have a greater impact on subjective outcomes than previously believed. However, these financial variables have negligible effects on global measures of SWB, and thus primarily affect SWB indirectly via their influence on financial satisfaction. Third, it is shown that a considerable part of the higher financial satisfaction with increasing age can be explained by greater assets and less debt among the aged.

In conclusion, the results of this thesis fill gaps in the extensive SWB literature and shed new light on prevailing lay and scholar assumptions about what contributes to “a happy life”. The findings also disconfirm some widely held beliefs about the different salience of various family and household resources between men and women and across age cohorts. Overall, the results show that family and household resources matter, but that the effects are always conditional, depending on combinations of gender, age, and measurement of well-being. Some relationships also seem to play out in a distinct manner in the Nordic context compared to, for example, in the United States. Future theoretical and empirical work thus ought to examine correlates of SWB in the context of gender, age, country, and the distinct aspect of SWB under scrutiny. It is also suggested that future research should be based on the idea that there are three kinds of subjective life quality: the pleasurable life, the satisfying life, and the meaningful life—and adopt measures that cover these different aspects. Finally, the thesis discusses implications for the future, focusing on how SWB and the salience of various predictors may change due to shifts between the current and the next generation of older people in terms of, for example, family relations and living arrangements, socioeconomic status, health and longevity, and values and expectations.

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