A failure to live up to parents' educational achievements can be as distressing to men as getting divorced, according to a study.

It suggests that men who achieve lower levels of qualifications than their mothers and fathers are more likely to experience "psychological distress", such as feeling depressed, lonely or unhappy.

The study, by academics at Oxford University, is based on analysis of data on more than 50,000 people in the UK, as well as individuals in 27 other European countries.

Researchers divided parents and their children's educational attainment into three categories. In Britain the top level was equivalent to a degree, middle level to A-levels and bottom level to GCSE or lower.

This information was compared to an overall score on a psychological distress index, based on questions to each individual about their feelings during the previous week, such as feeling depressed, everything being an effort, restless sleep, lonely, not enjoying life, sadness and unhappiness.

The findings, presented at the British Sociological Association's annual conference, showed that overall, men whose educational achievement was at the bottom - GCSE or below for those in the UK - who had parents with educational achievements at the top level - degree standard for the UK - were more than twice as likely to be in the top 10% most psychologically distressed compared with those who had a level of educational achievement that matched their parents.

This was comparable to the gap between those who were divorced and those who were not divorced, the researchers said.

Men whose educational level was in the middle, when their parents were at the top, were 75% more likely to be psychologically distressed than those who had the same educational achievements as their parents.

Those at the top for educational achievement who had parents at the bottom were 50% less likely to be psychologically distressed.

Women were not affected by failing to meet their parents' educational achievements.

Dr Alexi Gugushvili said: "Getting a higher educational achievement than one's parents is associated with a reduced level of psychological distress, even after the direct effect of individuals' and their parents' education and other conventional explanations of distress are accounted for.

"On the contrary, falling short of one's parents' education tends to raise the distress level, and a big disparity is especially harmful for men's psychological health status.

"For men, parents' educational achievement and inter-generational mobility retain an important influence on their psychological health after accounting for individuals' social class and other explanations of distress, but no effect is observed for women's distress.

"The reason for this could be that men are more likely than women to attribute success and failure by pointing to their own merits, abilities and effort, rather than factors they have no control over."