My role


Men and women view 'quality of life' differently

An old adage states that 'money cannot buy happiness' and most people will agree that there is more to life than the pursuit of wealth. So, ask Jacqueline Scott, Jane Nolan and Anke Plagnol, what does make people happy and do the things that matter for one's happiness differ between people?


Social scientists have increasingly turned to the analysis of people's wellbeing, but there is still little consensus on what we mean by 'quality of life'.

In this study, we analyse what men and women consider to be important for their own quality of life. We further ask whether different things matter for different ages, and how far people change their views on quality of life before and after important life events, including the transition to partnership and parenthood.

Our analysis is based on data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), a large scale survey which includes an open-ended question about individuals' perception of quality of life in 1997 and 2002. The use of responses to open-ended questions helps us understand what people perceive as important for quality of life and also to track how perceptions change across the life course, something few other studies have done.


We found that both genders rank health, family and finances highly (see table), but men place greater importance on finances and employment than women. Women, on the other hand, value family, friends and home comforts more than men do.

Health increasingly important

The importance of some aspects of one's quality of life changes with age. For instance, health is a more important factor from the mid-30s onwards which may reflect a growing awareness of declines in health. (Health becomes increasingly important for men and, by the age of 75+ is more important to them than to women of the same age.)

One respondent notes: 'If you've got your health that's all that's important.' The increasing importance of health may also indicate that health becomes more salient for people when they have children themselves and see their parents age. In most age groups women are more likely to With regards to their own health, older people often mention the importance of keeping their mobility and marbles.

Will, 76, tells us: 'You need to have all your marbles; mobility is important and to have all your thinking facilities.' One of the most interesting findings to emerge from this research is that people often focus on those close to them when assessing what is important for their own quality of life. One survey respondent states 'I haven't got any quality [of life] at the moment as my husband has Alzheimer's.'

The importance of family for one's quality of life is recognized across gender and age groups. Paul, 27, notes: 'The family's the most important part of my life', while a 61 year old female respondent stresses the importance of 'Having family around you.'

The significance of one's family declines at old age and at the same time, the role of family in one's life changes.Young people mainly consider their families as the providers of moral and material support, which is reflected in the response of a 19 year old male who notes: 'My family looked after me for a lot of my life.'

However, this view of family life changes as people start to form their own families. In the 26-45 age group, women often refer to the importance of children's wellbeing while men focus more on their role as breadwinners. Luke, 41, notes that for him, quality of life means: 'A secure job [which] enables me to buy things for my family.'

Society not more materialistic

Contrary to the common belief that our society is becoming more and more materialistic, those who mention finances as an important aspect for their quality of life mostly refer to 'Having enough money not to have to struggle.' We did not find evidence that people in Britain are dreaming of winning the lottery, buying mansions and living a life of luxury.

Why do perceptions of quality of life change over the life course? Our study revealed that people often reassess what is important in their life after key life transitions, such as having a first child or getting married. In one example, a 29-year old man describes quality of life as 'being able to go out and enjoy yourself.' Five years later after the birth of his first child he is more interested in 'being with my family; they keep me happy; make me laugh.'

In another case, Eleanor's priorities in 1997 are 'giving up smoking, health generally, expanding my career, making myself money, my future generally.' After the birth of her son, however, her concerns are: 'my son and a good family life: that's all that's important to me.' These two examples demonstrate how for many people life transitions lead them to re-evaluate their priorities in life and focus more on those close to them.

Overall, our research shows that quality of life is a process, not a fixed state. We also found gender differences between people's perceptions of what is important for their quality of life. There are qualitative differences in how men and women perceive the importance of aspects like family or finance, and these perceptions change markedly with age.

  • The article first appeared in the newsletter for February 2009 of Genet, the ERSC's gender equality network.

Page created on March 2nd, 2009

Page updated on December 1st, 2009