Higher education makes women happier after all: study

Vietnamese analysis of Australian survey data affirms findings about education’s impacts on subjective well-being, but ‘does not settle the argument’

March 24, 2021
Happy woman looking the huge cracked elephant-shaped oval rocks of Elephant Rocks from promontory. Girl enjoying boulders of Great Southern Ocean in William Bay NP near Denmark, Western Australia.
Source: iStock

Tertiary education makes women healthier and happier as well as wealthier, according to new research that refutes suggestions that university study could sentence people to lives of successful misery.

A Vietnamese analysis of Australian survey data has found that elevated levels of education among women correlate with better life satisfaction and psychological well-being, with the effects almost entirely attributable to the lifestyle impacts of higher learning.

These impacts include enhanced social connection and “healthier patterns of behaviour” – such as exercise, moderation in drinking and abstinence from smoking – as well as the benefits of boosted income. Once these side effects of higher education are controlled for, education exerts little or no additional influence on people’s psychological state.

“The positive effect of education on well-being can be explained by healthy habits, the extent of social capital and higher income,” the researchers conclude in the journal Plos One.

The finding will surprise few, with tertiary education long observed to have broad benefits over and above intellectual, professional and earning capacity. But the study, by economists at the Vietnamese-German University in Ho Chi Minh City, was designed to resolve “contradictory” findings about education’s impacts on well-being.

A 1996 British study found that workers with higher education levels were not as satisfied with their lives as less qualified workmates on equivalent salaries. And a 2016 US analysis suggested that educated people’s happiness declined if colleagues or neighbours were even better educated.

Researchers have theorised that education’s impacts on well-being can depend on how people compare to those around them, and can be undermined by the workload and stress that come with better-paid jobs. Another interpretation is that the happiness that education affords can be tempered by lofty ambition and unfulfilled expectations.

Such ideas contradict decades of findings that education equips people with the cognitive skills, trust, patience and judgment needed to achieve good health, happy marriages and successful children.

Lead author Dai Bin Tran said that it was important to address such evidentiary conflicts so that policymakers could have confidence that programmes to increase educational participation did not inadvertently undermine people’s well-being.

But he highlighted the limitations of a study based on one gender in one country. “I would say it contributes to the ongoing debate but does not settle the argument,” he said.

The analysis was based on the responses of almost 4,000 women to the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, a longitudinal study now in its 20th year. Its subject matter and high re-interview rate make it “ideal” for unpacking the relationship between education and well-being, the researchers said.


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