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‘The bottom of the “U” and my menopause happened at the same time’

Talking about The Happiness Curve, I often get asked about menopause. It hits in midlife and obviously has major physical and emotional effects. Here’s an email I received recently from a woman I’ll call H:

I have recently read your amazing book and wanted to thank you. I have been struggling for a number of years now and not understanding why, nor being able to get myself out of the “funk.” Your work has helped me enormously, comforted me, and given me the words and ideas to share and discuss with my husband. He is grateful too!!

I wanted to ask you if during your research for the book and in talking to so many people and experts whether for women, the menopause was mentioned as a contributing factor. For myself, the bottom of the “U” and my menopause happened at the same time and part of what I was feeling about my life was very closely tied up with body changes, the end of my reproductive life, how sexy I felt/feel. I saw it as a clear indication of the beginning of the road to decline physically, and this affected my self-esteem, outlook on life etc significantly. I could talk more about the details but my reason for contacting you is to ask if there is any research that you know of that I could read.

The somewhat surprising answer is that there’s no sign of meaningful differences between men and women where the pure effect of aging is concerned. Which means no effect of menopause  shows up.

I don’t know why, and I haven’t seen any studies that address the question specifically. One possibility is that the data are flawed. But at this point there’s so much data from so many places covering so many people and years that if the happiness curve were gendered, it would have shown up by now.

Another possibility is that for some women menopause just isn’t that big a deal, at least emotionally, and that for others it has both positive and negative effects on life satisfaction—so it’s kind of a wash.

Yet another possibility is that menopause has less effect on overall life satisfaction than it does on moment-to-moment emotions. Remember, the U-shaped curve measures how satisfying and rewarding we feel our lives to be overall, not how cheerful or worried or stressed we feel right now. Those two forms of happiness are very different, and people have no trouble telling them apart. Perhaps many women see menopause as important physically but not something they judge their lives by.

Or it could be some of all of the above. I dunno. We have a lot left to learn about aging and wellbeing…and so far, a lot of what we’ve learned has been surprising.

 

‘Approaching 84 is one of my happiest periods’

J. in Ohio provides a welcome example of the most surprising, and also the most robust, of the findings I report in The Happiness Curve: in late adulthood, the aging process helps us feel contentment. She writes:

Thank you for the very thought-provoking insights of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. It certainly helps me understand the unexplained gloom that engulfed me in my forties. But as I approach my 84th birthday, it is equally irrational that I should be experiencing one of the happiest periods of my life. Even my doctor seems amazed that I’m not depressed. I’ve been a widow for fifteen years, have had more than my share of medical issues, have long been retired from a satisfying career as a university professor, have given up volunteer jobs and international travels that enriched retirement. But living in an independent living apartment in a retirement community I’m not alone in finding that time flies by as I participate in a variety of activities from going out to dinner to concerts and theater. I have a wide variety of friends to share a meal with or invite for ‘Happy Hour’ on my balcony over a wooded ravine. Until he died a year ago, I even had a totally unexpected romantic relationship with a kindred spirit here. My own ‘happiness curve’ is higher than it was at sixty or seventy. It has me wondering what’s next.

J. goes on to say that the kind of positivity she is experiencing deserves more attention:

From my perspective your book demands a sequel about ‘happiness’ in old age. … My feelings are not universal but they are far more common than books by “experts” and interactions with others from physicians to family members leads one to expect. Part of it appears to be one’s experiences in adapting to change, how many times and how successfully you’ve had to cope with both pleasant and difficult changes. Part of it would seem to be participating in opportunities that make you feel needed and appreciated. I serve as webmaster for our resident website and share a ‘Great Courses’ lecture series that I purchased with an enthusiastic group of 15 to 20 residents. Both of these give me a feeling of contributing to my community that has always been important to me.

J. is clearly surprised to find herself experiencing so much contentment, despite having many reasons to expect herself to feel unhappy. Meanwhile, she is finding particular satisfaction in some group activities which, to her younger self, might have seemed pleasant but unimportant.

Together, her responses are good illustrations of how changes in our brains and our expectations join forces to help us toward contentment in late adulthood. Our brains become more focused on the positive, finding additional meaning and reward in simple—yet profound—acts of interpersonal connection. Because the stereotype of old age is one of loss, decline, and sadness, we get the further boost of a pleasant surprise.

As always, your mileage may vary. Nothing is guaranteed. But J.’s experience is common—and way under-recognized. She is right to say that the reality of happy aging deserves far more study and attention than it receives!