“Can you feel my pain? Middle-aged women sure can.”

Thus concludes a huge study on age and empathy conducted at University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. It was no surprise that women in their 50s are more empathic than their male peers. They also turn out to be more empathic than men and women both older and younger.  “Overall, late middle-aged adults reported that they were more likely to react emotionally to the experiences of others, and they were also more likely to try to understand how things looked from the perspective of others.”

If the findings were graphed, they would display “an inverted U-shaped pattern of empathy across the adult life span, with younger and older adults reporting less empathy and middle-aged adults reporting more.”

Why? One explanation offered by the authors is that cognitive and emotional function improves during the first half of life, and during the second half it diminishes. Or it could simply be that the subjects of this study came of age during the great social movements of the 1950s and 1960s–and learned from an early age to have compassion for those underfoot.  In twenty years, another study should be able to determine whether the cause is largely nature or nurture.

What fascinates me is that the graph of empathy over the adult lifespan, an inverted U-shape, does not correspond with the happiness curve, which hits its nadir in the 40s, then rises steadily. Which suggests that happiness can involve emotionally resonating with others; or, perhaps, ignoring them.

Women in their 50s have the optimal combination of happiness and empathy. Which is why for men seeking a lover who is both happy and happy to listen, the Magic Generation is a dream come true.




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