Are women happiest at age 28?

Friends answer: Damn straight

The published study would have slipped by me unnoticed if it hadn't been for the college women discussing it at an airport coffee shop. I was out of town last weekend and had passed on perusing the local morning paper. But after eavesdropping on these giggling women, and feeling a bit curious, I grabbed a copy of the local daily and read the syndicated story on the front page of the lifestyle section:

Women Are Happiest at Age of 28, Study Finds

Researchers have discovered that women feel most confident and happy with their work, their relationships, and their body shape at the age of 28. It is also the period in life when they enjoy the best sex—but the happiness is relatively short-lived. By the time they turn 30 they start worrying about growing old, developing gray hair and wrinkles, and they report less satisfaction in their relationships and career.

I was back in the Twin Cities early that evening and, strangely, still thinking about that study. It saddened me to think women could peak in their contentment so early in life, and I decided to make some calls to various female friends, all older than 30. I asked if they believed that the study's conclusion described their own experience.

I was stunned to hear each one reply, "Damn straight."

Denise said she felt things "leveling off" shortly after her 28th birthday. For several months she felt a strange stagnation that had not been there previously. Throughout her 20s, each day had brought with it a progressively sunnier outlook, a greater belief in her own abilities, a stronger confidence in her beauty, and a richer understanding of her role on Earth and the meaning of her life. But following her 28th birthday, the days abruptly stopped improving. It's not that they got worse right away, she said, it's that they no longer got better. That was a big red flag.

Renee reported that it was on her 29th birthday that she first felt a shift in her disposition. She spotted the beginning of a permanent smile line on her skin—skin that had previously been smooth and unblemished. She viewed herself naked in the mirror and noticed one breast was "slightly less perky than the other," as if asleep. It was as if the beginnings of a mild mammary depression were setting in, she said, and she thought that if something wasn't done the contagious despondency could leap to the other breast as well. She began to panic.

Connie told me that 29 was just the start. By 35 all hell was breaking loose. She was viewing men as shallow and two-dimensional, creatures interested in sex, not companionship; lust, not love. She found her boss suddenly less enthusiastic about her performance at work and less willing to consider her advancement in the company. By 39, she said, she was spending all of her disposable income on a life coach and a therapist. She envied the women of the 1300s whose lifespan never reached 39.

Carla said the 30s were rough, but the 40s were an unending parade of savage misery, with disease, divorce, and decay leading the way. By the time 50 rolled around, no friend had the heart to deliver so much as a Hallmark card with a whimsical witticism on aging. On the night before her 50th birthday party she dreamed all the guests arrived in hearses, with "Happy Birthday" sung as a mournful dirge, while neighbors opened a hole in the ground with a backhoe.

Hannah said, "Fifty was brutal, mean, and merciless, but nothing compared to what lay ahead." Turning 60, she said, was akin to "being water-boarded every waking hour of the day." When she looked in the mirror she saw little more than a rotting science museum mummy. She said learning she was adopted, and that her biological parents had dumped her in a Greyhound bus depot toilet, wasn't nearly as painful as knowing she had 19 more years before reaching the normal life expectancy for women.

Today she looks back wistfully at photos of herself from her 28th year, when life was all promise and possibility and her hair resembled the tresses of a L'Oreal commercial. She remembered almost being hit by a bus at 29 and wished she had not been so quick to leap out of the way.

She warned women in their 20s not to laugh at this study, as the women did in that airport coffee shop.

"Stop the giggling, you ninnies," she says. "Prepare for your Death March." 

 
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