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Oct. 29, 2007

Study: For Older Women,
Key to Happiness is not Always Traditional

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Happiness for older women may be tied to resisting traditional gender roles in marriage and parenting, according to a new study by a pair of Smith College psychology professors.

In a sample of 81 college educated women initially studied at age 52, and then again 10 years later, researchers found that whether or not they subscribed to traditional gender roles influenced their midlife satisfaction levels.

Women who resisted traditional roles in marriage and parenting were more satisfied with their lives than women who were traditionally minded, according to Bill E. Peterson, associate professor psychology and an author of the study, which appeared in a recent issue of the scientific journal “Psychology and Aging.”

Researchers found that women with a traditional mindset expressed fewer positive feelings about motherhood and were unlikely to view motherhood as an avenue of growth. With regard to marriage, the women with a traditional mindset were alsomore likely to rate their husbands as “unloving.”

“Apparently, their investment in the traditional roles of wife and mother had not paid off as convention might have promised,” said Peterson.

By contrast, women who endorsed a more egalitarian stance about home life focused on how parenting provided them with opportunities for self-growth. Parts of their own development, they noted, were tied to taking care of and raising their children. These same women characterized their spouses as “loving” and “wise.”

Further, the more egalitarian women expressed confidence in their identities and were not overly concerned with growing older. The women with a traditional mindset, by contrast, expressed feeling somewhat stagnated and less confident.

Researchers performed the study with a survey that included questions developed to ellicit personality type and questions developed to determine general life satisfaction -- all of which were drawn from tested psychological scales.

The findings were surprising, given the expectation that women who endorsed traditional roles might also feel social pressure to claim that they are successful parents by virtue of the fact that they prioritized that role, according to Peterson.

Peterson conducted the study with Lauren E. Duncan, also an associate professor of psychology. Their sample was limited to Smith College alumnae who, in addition to being well educated, were also generally well-off within the context of the overall population. More research needs to be done on women of varying education and income levels, Peterson and Duncan said.


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Kristen Cole
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