Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Gender Differences in Midlife / Late Life Spirituality

Photo by Su-chan
Are women more naturally spiritual than men? Are older people more spiritual than younger people?  And as a result, are mature women the most spiritual of all?

As a child, I remember seeing the Norman Rockwell picture "Sunday Morning," which depicts a mother marching out the door with three children. They are all dressed in their Sunday best.

In the foreground is the father, slinking into his chair and hiding behind the newspaper. He's in his pajamas, robe and slippers. The lone boy casts an envious glance at his father.

Rockwell is playing off the stereotype that men are more resistant about formal church worship than women. But is there empirical evidence of this?

It's incredibly difficult to measure something as ethereal as spirituality. Researchers, nonetheless, have tried to quantify it.  Some studies measure outward signs of religious affiliation such as church attendance, prayer and scripture reading. Researchers also administer surveys and conduct interviews about attitudes associated with spirituality.

These studies can't tell us everything about religion and spirituality, but they can tell us something.

Because it was based on a 40 year longitudinal study, I was interested in the study Paul Wink and Michele Dillon published in 2002. They studied 200 men and women by interviewing them at four points over 40 years.

The participants were asked questions about spirituality and religiosity. Their answers were then scored from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score.

Few people were highly spiritual, so the total results appear mainly on the lower end of the scale.

Wink & Dillon share an interesting literature review that informs their research questions before they detail their methods, findings and implications.

To read the original article, see Wink, P. & Dillon, M. (2002). Spiritual development across the adult life course: Findings from a longitudinal studyJournal of Adult Development, 9(1), 79-94.

In the most general terms, they found that women scored higher for the study's definition of spirituality and religiosity. In addition, older people scored higher for spirituality and religiosity than younger people.

Pinpointing the reasons for these differences is a matter of interpretation. The authors offer their insights:
"Our results support the general view that spiritual development tends to occur in the second half of adult life, and that it is enhanced by the combination of being a psychologically minded and unconventional individual who has also experienced discontinuity and adversity" (p. 93).
In other words, people are more spiritual if they 1) are tuned into their emotions and the emotions of others, 2) are nonconformists, 3) are willing to confront life events that differ from their expectations, and 4) suffer hardships.

I also notice the uptick for women occurs a decade or so before the men experience an uptick.  I have a theory about that. My own observation is sexism causes ageism to hit earlier for women. 

I have seen a number of women in their 50s struggle to redefine their worth after receiving subtle or overt messages that they are incompetent, unattractive or in some way all washed up. This kind of feedback invites midlife women to deepen their spirituality.   My observation is that men more often experience parallel ageism between 65 and 75.

Yes, men and women have other choices in how they respond to prejudice (whether it's ageism, sexism, racism or any other form of bigotry).  I admit that I have a multifaceted response, which is a combination of denial of the problem, ambition to work harder to overcompensate for it, and spirituality to transcend it. 

Whatever we women decide to do, hopefully we can offer our wisdom to the men in our lives when they hit the wall. And we can certainly recognize wisdom in men who defy the stereotype and display great spirituals strength.  And hopefully younger people can learn something from their tried-and-true elders, both male and female.


Embracing My Age
Robert G. Peck's Tasks for Older Adults
Spirituality and Older Adults: Ask but Don't Tell

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