‘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.


2 replies
  1. Neil
    Neil says:

    Thank you Jonathan, and these contributors, for sharing on this important question, and especially for wrapping it in the gently non-expert language you chose. It exemplifies the mature humility and vulnerability that your hard and careful work urge for society. I affirm your personal value, Jonathan, and am very grateful for you. That’s why am not interested (too much!) in over-analyzing publicly-committed short passages:) Just some interesting thoughts that occurred to me on the spot. For women, “the pure effect of aging” cannot be separated from menopause. It’s as certain as taxes:) Aging can’t be “pure” or purified away from menopause. And I’m moved to contribute my comments precisely because you haven’t seen any specific studies relating menopause to the happiness curve field. If I remember, you propose the origins of the field around 2004 or 2005. So I hope someone will get cracking on menopausal studies within this 14 year old field:) I hope recently enlighted happiness economists will capitalize on the interminable mountains of studies on menopause, and unite with social scientists, neuro-endocrinologists, gynecologists and the like.

  2. Neil
    Neil says:

    Yesterday I affirmed Jonathan’s profound value to me, so straight to a point…

    I’m cautious this is possibly “believing what one wants (or needs) to believe,” – the converse of which is denying what one wants (or needs) to deny…
    To say that the dip is not gendered is not at all to say that, for women, the trough isn’t linked to menopause!

    “Woman” (or “man”) is linked to gender, which for “woman” is inseparable from the cooccurrence of the dip and peri/menopause!

    For men, the trough is linked to something else(?), but might very well be linked to menopause by association. Meaning, if midlife men have any contact with midlife women (which of course most do), then what? Even that is too narrow; you urge the critical importance to get society support through the trough. Half of midlife society is women in peri/menopause!


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