Education and the Subjective Quality of Life*

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Journal of Health and Social Behavior 1997, Vol. 38 (September):275-297 We examine whether education influences subjective quality of life. If it does, what are the mechanisms by which education affects well-being? We propose that educa- tion improves well-being because it increases access to nonalienated paid work and economic resources that increase the sense of control over life, as well as access to stable social relationships, especially marriage, that increase social support. We examine the relationship between education and a variety of indicators of subjective quality of life-depression, anxiety, anger, aches and pains, malaise, and dissatis- faction. Using two representative national samples collected in 1990 and 1995, we find that the well educated have lower levels of emotional distress (including depres- sion, anxiety, and anger) and physical distress (including aches and pains and malaise), but they do not have lower levels of dissatisfaction. Education reduces dis- tress largely by way of paid work, nonalienated work, and economic resources, which are associated with high personal control; but the extent to which it reduces distress by way of marriage and social support is much more modest. We contrast distress and dissatisfaction as indicators of the subjective quality of life. Does education matter to subjective quality of life? If it does, what are the mechanisms by which education affects well-being? We pro- pose that education is valuable to individual well-being because it provides access to the two primary determinants of well-being: non- *We are indebted to the National Institute on Aging for the grant (ROI AG12393) to John Mirowsky and Catherine Ross that supported the Aging, Status, and the Sense of Control (ASOC) data collection and analysis. We are indebted to the National Science Foundation for the grant (SES- 8916154) to Catherine Ross that supported the Work, Family, and Well-Being (WFW) data collec- tion. Sampling, pretesting, and interviewing for both surveys were conducted by the Survey Research Laboratory of the University of Illinois. We thank John Mirowsky for his statistical help, Barbara Reskin for her help with the comparison process theory of satisfaction, and JHSB reviewers for their suggestions. Address correspondence to: Catherine Ross, Department of Sociology, 300 Bricker Hall, 190 North Oval Mall, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210-1353; e-mail: ross. 131 @osu.edu. alienated paid work and supportive relation- ships. Compared to the poorly educated, we expect that well-educated persons have access to nonalienated paid work that increases the sense of personal control. Well-being comes, first, from nonalienated work in which people exert control over the labor process (Kohn 1976; Marx ([1884] 1964). Work that gives people the freedom from routinization, monot- ony, and external control on the one hand, and a chance to use their skills, develop as a per- son, and learn new things on the other, theo- retically increases subjective well-being, in part by increasing perceived control. Com- pared to the poorly educated, we also expect that well-educated individuals have access to stable social relationships, especially mar- riage, that increase social support. Well-being comes, second, from primary group ties and social bonds that increase supportive relation- ships with others, especially the personal secu- rity of marriage, and the sense of having other people to talk to and turn to in times of need (Durkheim 1951; Litwak and Messeri 1989). We propose that, through these processes, 275 276 JOURNAL OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL BEHAVIOR education improves the subjective quality of life, measured as psychological well-being and distress. We extend core economic and sociological perspectives on the meaning of education to individual well-being. We argue that educa- tion's value extends beyond jobs, earnings, prestige, and power to people's psychological well-being. According to human...
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