The Midlife Confidence Surge

Can science confirm what so many of us have figured out on our own — that passing 40 kicks women’s confidence into high gear?

By Thea Singer

More Confident Than EverIt’s a bright summer day; I squeeze into a snappy (in every sense of the word) new stretch ensemble and enter a dance studio, ready for my first class in 17 years. It’s an advanced modern-dance class taught by a renowned choreographer, and nearly everyone else in the room is young enough to be my child. What had possessed me, at 54, to turn in my dance-critic’s notebook and head for the boards?In a word, confidence: a surprising surge of it that began in my early 40s and continues to gather steam. It brought to mind my sensations when I first danced onstage some 30 years ago: I became aware not only of the space opening up around me but also of my right to push through it, unrestrained. "I can do…I use my powers; I! I!" — these lines from Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio rang in my head. You know what I’m talking about.Searching for ProofRavenna Helson, 83, may be the mother of all women’s confidence researchers. "I’m glad you are feeling that middle age is a good thing!" she e-mailed me when I set out to learn whether there was scientific evidence of women’s burgeoning confidence at midlife. Currently an adjunct professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Helson was also the original director of the Mills Longitudinal Study, which she launched in 1958, when I was just 6 and considered my 32-year-old mother over the hill.Mills College is a small women’s private school in Oakland, California; Helson’s groundbreaking study has been tracking the social, psychological, and emotional development of 123 of its graduates for the past five decades. "The Mills women certainly had a surge of confidence in early middle age," Helson told me by e-mail. In the early 1980s, when the women were in their early 40s, their feelings of independence, confidence, and competence were particularly high — in sharp contrast to the way insecurities gripped them when they were younger. In her 30s, for example, the typical respondent worried that "I will never get myself together" and reported "feeling weak, incompetent, or not as strong as other people." But in their 40s — ah, the Mills women were "feeling powerful," "having a sense of being my own person," and "feeling a new level of productivity."Helson and I cyber-chatted a few more times; I couldn’t wait to hop on a plane so I could learn more and cement what felt by now like a transcontinental bond. But when I tried to set up a meeting, she declined: "I am very busy."I’d been ditched! Twenty-five years ago, her "no" would have stung like a slap. But now I just turned the other cheek — this time eastward, toward Helson’s disciples, those carrying her research into the next generation.See Them SoarMargie E. Lachman’s office at Brandeis University, where she is professor and chair of the psychology department, is large and sunlit. A cheerful 55-year-old with rectangular glasses and dark hair swept up in a silver barrette, Lachman was one of the original researchers on the massive Midlife in the United States study, which began in 1994. Through surveys and phone interviews, MIDUS assessed the health and well-being of a nationally representative sample of more than 7,000 Americans ages 25 to 74. Data collection for the 10-year MIDUS II follow-up study, which examines how the original participants have changed, was completed in 2006. "We do find evidence that the sense of mastery peaks in midlife," Lachman says. "There is definitely a surge in confidence for women."These results are supported by a series of research studies by Abigail J. Stewart, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, where she also headed the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. "I do think women experience an increase in ‘confident power’ in middle age," Stewart, 58, wrote me after I contacted her. She attached several of her research papers.My path had first crossed with Stewart’s in the late 1970s, when I was faking being a knowledgeable editor at the Radcliffe Quarterly (impostor syndrome hit hard in my 20s) and she was the founding director of the Henry A. Murray Research Archive at Radcliffe College, which archives social science research. In 1974, while still a graduate student, Stewart had started working on an investigation of the Radcliffe class of 1964 that was inspired by personality tests the women had taken as freshmen. Over the years, she grew increasingly interested in the process of "middle aging," but the women she interviewed in her studies kept talking about confidence, so Stewart shifted gears to focus specifically on that."I think middle age for everybody involves a sense of ownership of one’s self and clarity about who you are — the absence of which is part of what is difficult about being a young adult," Stewart told me during a phone interview. She looks back on her own days as a young academic to illustrate the point. "I watch my graduate students struggle with their first publications, and I remember feeling the way they feel," she says. "But I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s part of learning about yourself: ‘Oh, I’m not so anxious about this anymore; it doesn’t feel like my whole value as a human being rides on this.’"Stewart’s Radcliffe research, like the Mills and MIDUS studies, is longitudinal, meaning it tracks the same group of people over time. When Stewart interviewed some of the Radcliffe women at 50, many said they felt they’d come into their own, finally understanding their strengths and limitations. "One woman talked about being able to deploy herself effectively," Stewart recalls. "I think what she meant was that she knows what she can do and that she cannot waste time trying to do things she’s not good at. Ironically, being more comfortable accepting what you can’t do leads you to be more confident about what you can do." The women also talked — a lot — about not worrying about what other people think.Perspective, PleaseThe women’s comments are supported by data, and not just from the Radcliffe sample. Stewart and her colleagues have published several recent studies examining the lives of women from different generations and social classes. In one, they surveyed University of Michigan alumnae at the ages of, on average, 26, 46, and 66 to assess various traits, including confidence. The women in their 20s scored much lower in confidence than those in their 40s, who scored much lower than those in their 60s.This sense of increasing confidence often leads to what Stewart refers to as midcourse corrections — that is, major growth-oriented changes in their educational or work lives that women make in their early 40s as a result of regrets they articulate in their late 30s."It is not too late to change," says Lachman, who perceives midlife for women as both a time of reconsideration and a time of mastery. "You’ve got a lot of opportunities," she says. "There is still a lot of resilience and reserve capacity. People get wake-up calls." And it’s easier to answer them, Lachman says, because many middle-aged and older adults are also better at regulating their emotions, experiencing more positive moods and fewer negative ones: "With experience, you realize that one failure is not necessarily going to destroy your career. And you begin to put things into perspective." The finding is supported by research on brain activity at various life stages.The strongest scientific evidence yet for the confidence surge could emerge from the combined analyses of the MIDUS I and MIDUS II studies. Together, they could represent the most accurate picture of midlife to date, given the size of the project, its socioeconomic diversity, and its longitudinal nature (it compares the original participants, 75 percent of whom returned, with their decade-older selves). The findings have not yet been released to the public.But the principal investigator for MIDUS II, Carol Ryff, discussed her preliminary impressions. Ryff, 57 and the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also a psychology professor, developed a model with which to measure well-being, incorporating elements such as autonomy, self- acceptance, and a sense of purpose in life. Confidence, Ryff says, plays a role in several of those, especially autonomy, which, in the study, "is really about feeling that you can follow your own convictions and do what’s right for you even if it might go against conventional wisdom or what other people think is appropriate." When she and her colleagues compared how survey respondents felt about themselves with what they’d said 10 years before, they discovered an upswing among those in midlife. "It’s the people who were in their 30s to 40s who are now in their 40s to 50s who were more likely to show actual gains in their well-being over time," she says.Perception Versus RealityIn studies involving men and women, both genders had a surge in confidence as they hit middle age. "But they were at different levels," Lachman says. Men, more accustomed to feeling confident, begin higher on the scale, she explains. "So for the women, perhaps the surge in confidence is more meaningful or has more of an impact."Stewart, however, views the young men’s assertions with skepticism. "My guess is that underneath this self-report by men in their 20s — that they feel fully confident and powerful and so on — is that they don’t," she says. "But I think that the public image men have to project requires that they seem confident. And then they grow into it."I’m ready to bust another myth, one born of my generation’s hubris: that the midlife female power boost was invented by boomers. No, the research says, it was not. In fact, increased confidence among women of a certain age seems to have occurred in every era, regardless of the social climate, which leads researchers to believe that it’s experience in general — taking our lumps and learning from them — that makes us strong and wise.And why not do away with one more myth while we’re at it? In light of the evidence on confidence, the pop-culture images of dried-up midlife women reeling from senior moments make no sense. Why, I ask Stewart, has society — men and even women — been so slow to get the memo?"I agree, it’s pretty bizarre," she says. To her knowledge — as well as that of the other social scientists I spoke with — there have been no studies refuting the findings about women’s increased confidence at midlife. "But the cultural stereotypes are very strong," she says. "They’re resistant to change."I brought up the subject again when I visited Jacquelyn Boone James, 60, who’s the director of research at the Boston College Center for Work & Family and coeditor of several books about midlife development. Wearing a jean skirt with orange stitching and a matching orange watchband, she too is incredulous at the hole in the popular consciousness about women’s confidence — but not surprised that research has proved it wrong. "It seems so intuitive, don’t you think?" she asks. "As we get older, we get experience, we face crises. And we realize that our heads don’t fall off most of the time."Reaching New HeightsI had one more stop to make on my confidence trajectory: a visit to a psychologist who was working on a book about confidence and other elements of well-being.I found Susan Krauss Whitbourne, coeditor of The Baby Boomers Grow Up: Contemporary Perspectives on Midlife, in her office at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she’s a professor of psychology. When I first contacted her, she sent me a copy of her as yet unpublished paper "Psychosocial Development in Adulthood from College Through Midlife," the basis for her new book on paths to fulfillment, scheduled to be published in 2009. At our meeting, Whitbourne, 59, is at once elegant and down-to-earth, with hot-pink nail polish peeking through her open-toe patent leather shoes.She walked me through the paper, a longitudinal study of 382 men and women who attended the University of Rochester, in New York, between the 1960s and the 1980s. The sample was divided in two: Group 1 first participated in 1966, and over the years of testing its members matured, on average, from age 20 to 54. Group 2 was first tested in 1977 and aged, on average, from 20 to 42.The confidence measures told their own story. "Industry" — the sense of identification with the world of work, the feeling that you’re a competent person — soared for both groups as the subjects moved into middle age. "Identity" — having a strong sense of self and feeling you know who you are and what you want out of life — also increased over time. "And it doesn’t stop," Whitbourne notes.Of course, generalities never give a complete picture, as all the researchers I spoke with pointed out. Midlife, they emphasized, varies for different people at different times and in different places. Indeed, the very years that constitute middle age change depending on whom you ask. I, for example, don’t plan to slip into — what’s it called now? the "young old"? — until I’m 70.But patterns do matter. They give us a foundation, a way to fit ourselves into the world. The midlife confidence surge, I’m now convinced, is as real as the sweat dripping off my face as I drive home from Amherst, hot but happy, in my un-air-conditioned Volvo.Six weeks later, I practice some mindful breathing before stepping into the dance studio — 2,500 square feet of light and air. From my position in the back, the 10-foot-high front wall of mirrors reflects not so much the bodies in the room but the great outdoors — leafy treetops, blue sky — shining through the giant windows behind us."Pull in your ribs, drop your pelvis, align your hips, stand on the inside of both legs," choreographer Dan Wagoner, himself a spry 75, cajoles us, using his hands to align his own body to illustrate what goes where. "Be of one piece.""That’s it, dancers!" he exclaims. "Ah, when you have children they will drop right out of you!"At 54, I am well past the age of having children drop right out of me. But I am lifted and expansive, right where the researchers say I’m expected to be at this point in my life: I’m ready to fly.This Is Your Brain on ConfidenceMedical experts tell us that gray matter — the billions of neurons in the brain that process information — starts shrinking in our early teens. What we hear less often is the good news: that white matter — the insulated nerve fibers that connect the neurons and enable them to function at top speed and efficiency — keeps growing until we die. Studies by UCLA neurologist George Bartzokis, MD, have found that white matter volume reaches its peak in middle age — from 45 to 55 or 60, depending on the brain region. Both women and men enjoy this midlife brain perk; where some researchers say the genders differ is in brain "laterality." "Women tend to use both sides of their brain for processing, whereas men tend to use one side or the other," says Cynthia Darlington, associate professor at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, and author of The Female Brain. "This means that many women can parallel process — that is, process a couple of trains of thought or activities at once." Leanne M. Williams, director of the Brain Dynamics Centre at the Westmead Millennium Institute in Sydney, Australia, recently made another midlife-brain discovery. Over the years, her studies show, the brains of both sexes get better at suppressing negative emotions and letting positive ones through — but women’s scores seem to outpace men’s. Neuroticism in women declined, too. "Women are the ones whose brains are the most emotionally stable," Williams says, "particularly from age 50 on." Memo to Dr. Freud: Yes, anatomy is destiny, but not in the way you had in mind.Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:32

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