Why We're More Empathetic in Middle Age

Need a shoulder to cry on? Look for a 50-something woman. According to a recent study of more than 75,000 adults, women in their fifties are the most empathetic demographic, on average.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which allows you to see things from their perspective and feel what they’re feeling. The study, led by researchers at the University of Michigan, looked at how this ability varies with age.

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The researchers found a pattern that looked like an upside-down U on a graph. Empathy gradually increased from young adulthood through late middle age, when it peaked. After that, it gradually declined again in the later decades of life.

People in late middle age said they were more likely to try seeing things from someone else’s point of view. They were also more likely to react emotionally to another person’s experiences. Based on this study, when people in their fifties claim to feel your pain, there’s a decent chance they mean it.

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What Happens After That?

One possible explanation: Empathy may grow during the first half of life as people hone their thinking skills and accumulate life experiences. This process builds to a peak around ages 50 to 60. After that, age starts taking a toll on people’s mental sharpness, and that depletes their emotional resources.

There’s a big problem with this theory, however. A large body of research shows that people over 60 actually tend to be happier than their younger counterparts. It sure doesn’t seem as if their emotional resources are lacking. Maybe it’s just that older adults naturally tend to turn more of their emotional energy inward. This might explain how they make themselves happier—and also why they’re less focused on getting inside other people’s heads.

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Does Age Really Matter?

Another possibility: When it comes to empathy, the generation people are born into may matter at least as much as their age. In the study, middle-aged participants had been born in the 1950s and ‘60s. As the researchers point out, that means they were raised “during historic social movements, from civil rights to various antiwar countercultures.” In other words, they came of age at a time when there was a lot of discussion about the rights and feelings of other groups, and that may have nurtured their whole generation’s capacity for empathy.

Which matters more, age or generation? Unfortunately, the study wasn’t designed to answer that question. But other research hints that generational differences may play an important role in empathy. In fact, this same research team stirred up some controversy a few years back with a study showing that today’s college students are less empathetic than their predecessors of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Obviously, there are lots of individual exceptions to these general rules. There are 25 and 85-year-olds who are extremely empathetic and 55-year-olds who could care less how you feel. But, in general, if you’re looking for a sympathetic ear, a middle-aged listener is a good place to start.

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