Not two words you usually see together. Images of menopausal women range from dried up prunes beyond their expiration date to crazed lunatics careening from screaming irritability to sobbing desperation. Unstable, irrational, and out of control, the image of the menopausal woman is not pretty. And certainly not happy. She is definitely not anyone you want to be.
But if you think about actual women you know from the age of 45-55 (the average age of menopause) the meaning of this image goes from cautionary tale to bizarre myth. Many women I know in this age range find confidence in the wisdom that mid-life brings, and are making career changes, or applying themselves to their professions with renewed energy and commitment, or finding satisfaction in new roles in their communities, and reveling in their new-found free time since their chauffeur responsibilities have ended.
How do we reconcile these conflicting images? Is it some strange anomaly that the middle-aged women I (and probably you) know are happy?
Apparently not. Several studies verify that on average, middle-aged and elderly women are satisfied with their lives. That’s right. Those women we’ve been told who are past their prime, mired in depression, lacking purpose, and roaming from one empty child’s room to the next, are happy. Furthermore, older women are even less likely than younger women to be depressed.
But the image of menopausal women as hot-flashing emotional maniacs abounds. Yes, American women going through menopause are likely to experience some physical symptoms like hot flashes. (I specify American women because these symptoms are not gender-wide. In Japanese, there isn’t even a word for hot flash).
But only 20% of menopausal women feel the need to seek medical care to ease their symptoms, meaning 80% don’t. That’s a huge majority.
Menopause’s reputation as something horrible has created such negative attitudes and expectations that pre-menopausal women predict it will be a far-reaching, aversive experience. Studies show that the women who are least negative about menopause are those who’ve already gone through it!
Many post-menopausal women describe it as a minor occurrence, and report feeling relieved that they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant anymore. Some see menopause as a life event that encouraged them to evaluate their lives and consider making changes.
This is not to say that some women at this stage of life don’t report symptoms like depression, mood swings, and irritability, but there is no scientific evidence that menopause, in and of itself, causes these symptoms for those who get them. That long suspected culprit, decreased hormone levels, appears to have very little to do with mood issues at this time of life. You read that right. Hormones have little to do with mental health during the 40’s and 50’s.
According to several studies, the most influential factors in predicting the psychological well-being of women during middle age include: degree of control over your environment, the number of roles you inhabit (e.g. wife, mother, volunteer, employee, friend), physical health, financial stability, and the deaths of friends and relatives.
But remember the majority of women in this age range are quite content. I bet the women you know who are menopausal or postmenopausal are more accurately described as steady and high-functioning (with menopause maybe causing some bumps in the road) rather than lunatic nut jobs. Menopause and happiness. Who knew? Turns out, lots of people.
Bourque, P. et al. (2003). Contextual effects on life satisfaction of older men and women. Canadian Journal on Aging, 24, 31-33.
Kahana, E. et al. (2005). Successful aging in the face of chronic disease. In M.L. Wykle, P.J. Whitehouse & D.L. Morris (Eds.), Successful aging through the lifespan (pp. 101-123). New York: Springer.
Gannon, L. & Ekstrom, B. (2006). Attitudes toward menopause. The influence of sociocultural paradigms. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 275-288.
Whitbourne, S.K. & Skultety, K.M. (2006). Aging and Identity: How women face later life transitions. In J. Worrell and C.D. Goodheart (Eds.), Handbook of girls’ and women’s psychological health: Gender and well-being across the life span (pp. 370-378). New York: Oxford University Press.