The research led by Anke Plagnol of the University of Cambridge, and University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin, is the first to use nationally representative data spanning several decades to examine the role of unfulfilled desires in a person's sense of well-being.
The study has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
As the researchers explain, expectations of success may vary among those raised in different generations (i.e., an economic depression). Data sets from a range of time periods may also have different demographic compositions.
In their analysis, the researchers control for birth cohort and demographic characteristics such as race and education. They find that women are, on average, happier than men in early adulthood - but the glow wears off with time. Specifically, after the age of 48, men's overall happiness exceeds women's happiness.
These gender patterns of overall happiness correlate to patterns in two significant aspects of life satisfaction: family and finances.
In later life Plagnol says "it is men [who] come closer to fulfilling their aspirations, are more satisfied with their family lives and financial situations, and are the happier of the two."
Women and men have fairly similar life goals when it comes to love, the study reveals. Nine out of 10 people of both genders reach adult life wanting a happy marriage.
"Differences between men and women in aspirations for marriage and children are fairly small. Gender differences in satisfaction depend largely on attainment," says Plagnol, who received her Ph.D. from USC in 2007.
The saddest period of the average man's life - his 20s - is also the period when he is most likely to be single.
Young men are also more dissatisfied than young women with their financial situations, not because they are worse off, but because they want more and therefore experience a greater "shortfall," the researchers explain.
But age alters many things, including men's money woes and lackluster love lives.
After 34, men are more likely to be married than women, and the gap only widens with age, mirroring men's growing satisfaction with family life.
Men also become more satisfied with their financial situations over time, as reflected in their increased spending power.