In case you have doubts, richer people are happier than poorer people. A 10% increase in income raises happiness in every country of the world, according to global research. What has happened to the American middle class in the past three years is exactly the opposite. Median household income fell nearly 10%, to $49,909, reports Sentier Research.

Gallup-Healthways has been measuring Americans’ well-being for three years. People’s daily mood improves as their income rises, up to $75,000. While overall well-being depends on a cluster of physical, emotional and social experiences, men’s sense of well-being is strongly tied to a dollar number. The rub: The median income for a year-round, full-time employed male is little improved (in 2010 dollars) over almost 40 years ago.

The largest cohort in America today — women 45 to 55 — derive well-being from a different calculus than men, according to Healthways research. If the family income is sufficient to pay the bills, most women are able to compensate from other sources of well-being: children, friends, a sense of meaning in work or community service. But even these female strengths are being sorely tested by a moribund economy.

Overturning precedent, this generation of women 45 to 55 self-reports the lowest well-being of any age group, according to Healthways’ well-being index. Why?

People filter their expectations through their experience, and younger Boomer women have had a great ride up to now. Doors were kicked open for them by the pioneer Boomer generation. When they shot out of colleges and grad schools in record numbers, job offers were waiting.

Just when they expect to cross the 50 age hump and pursue passions put on hold, two specters are threatening their second-chance dreams: caregiving and unemployment.

The responsibility for caring for aging or sickly parents falls overwhelmingly on women in this age group. Money can’t buy off their guilt. Even when a midlife woman’s income reaches the enviable number of $120,000, if she still has a child at home plus an aging family member who needs caregiving, Healthways data show her well-being begins to decline. Very likely, this daughter works at a high-powered job that leaves her little time to do hands-on caregiving. At work, she feels guilty about not visiting. When visiting, she feels guilty about not working.

The greatest source of stress for most women is the emotional problems they bring into the workplace.

Wendy Li is a prime case. A hard-working Chinese-American who speaks four languages, she landed a job at Merrill-Lynch right out of college, in 1986. Overtime and bonuses brought her income up to $55,000 by age 30. Then her husband’s company transferred him to Columbus, Ohio, and Wendy was confined in the sleepy suburb of Dublin with two small children.

She found meaningful work as a medical interpreter. “At Merrill-Lynch, I thought only of money,” she says. “As an interpreter for sick immigrants, I work from the heart.” But at age 46, her income is half what it was 16 years ago; no overtime, no benefits, no health insurance. She is on call 24/7 at a hospital.

When her grandmother had a stroke, Wendy spent three years shuttling between the old woman’s sickbed, work and family. No sooner did her grandmother pass on than her husband was laid off. Unemployed since January, he helps out at home.

“I try not to let money be that important,” she says, “but my husband is ashamed of not being able to support his family.” Her son will join the Marine reserves to receive 60% of his tuition.

The danger to well-being, reports Healthways, is to believe conditions will never improve.

Women such as Wendy Li, stressed as they are, remain stubbornly optimistic. Her strongest supports are religious faith and female friends. “We don’t gossip at lunch,” she says. “We share useful information on how to survive this recession.”

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