Midlife women are flourishing compared with men. Despite the daily gloom of economic predictions, women in midlife are more optimistic about their lives today and five years from now than men are about theirs.

Surprisingly, 25 percent of women ages 45 to 55 give themselves a 10 out of 10 on optimism about their future, finds a Gallup-Healthways poll of Americans’ well-being. These women have a sense of meaning and engagement. They love learning new things. And they expect in five years to be at the top of a ladder of well-being.

Only 17 percent of men in this age group have the same sunny attitude about their present and future lives. What accounts for this striking disparity?

Lindsay Sears and her scientific team at Healthways Research Center found a prominent trend: Younger Boomer women fall back on the greatest booster of their optimism — strong social support and girlfriend circles. It isn’t the number of friends they have; it’s the quality and consistency. Men of the same demographic are not as likely to have a strong support network.

The most optimistic women spend about six hours a day in social interaction. Some of that time may be with a friend at work, with family, a husband or children, or with a partner, a love interest, or neighbors. But girlfriends are the bedrock. The most optimistic women have an inner circle of anywhere from four to a dozen friends who “have their back” and will drop everything to help in a crisis.

Having hundreds of  “friends” on Facebook and contacts on LinkedIn is great for business and self-promotion. But coming home from a conference with a fistful of business cards is not emotionally fulfilling. “Contacts” won’t be there for you when you have a blowup with your boss and fear for your job. If you have no ready social outlet, you’ll likely start to sleep poorly and feel your energy drain. The best way to recover optimism is to walk and talk with a girlfriend or a group.

This is exactly what delivered Elizabeth Fox from a midlife funk. She was 46 and pregnant with her third child when her mother died. As the former manager of a Nashville radio station, she was used to 60-hour workweeks with no time to waste socializing.

“I just had to get off the bus,” she says, remembering the isolation and sluggishness she felt when she was still in her pajamas at 9:30 a.m. after getting her kids off to school. A girlfriend urged: “Just come and walk with me. It’ll help you.”

Fox hiked the day before she had her baby. She hasn’t stopped in the nine years since. A friend still picks her up at 5:15 a.m. to gather with their tribe and refresh their senses on a Tennessee mountain trail, followed by coffee and girl talk. By 7:20 a.m., Fox is home and ready to work.

A few years ago, she needed a new passion. But like so many mothers ready to return to work, she felt inadequate. Taking inventory of her skill set, she realized she’s a natural communicator who loves shopping and being helpful. Why not start a blog? “Just do it,” she told herself.

A technophobe, she hooked up with a female partner 15 years her junior. After a year of brainstorming, the two women, above, launched StyleBluePrint.com, a site about books, cooking, and cool boutiques. She is still astonished that they could start with a blank screen and in two years build an audience of 42,000 unique visitors and a profitable business.

But she will never again let her friendships lapse. She recently gathered in Denver with “The Hens,” eight women who shared the indelible years of their late 20s and early 30s. They time-traveled back to a weekend when they ditched a ski trip to huddle around a lovesick Fox. If there were a crisis today, they’d still huddle.

“I just turned 55,” Fox says without embarrassment. “I have a passion, and it’s working!”

(Published simultaneously with USA TODAY.)

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  • Judy Williams October 6, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Women talking with other women is the key to happiness. We do support each other and form strong bonds that are incredibly resilient.
    Women often lose contact with their friends during the child rearing years when they are immersed in family. Once the toughest of those years are over, those friendships can be renewed, which is a vital link to happiness in later life.
    I’m re-establishing those friendships now and it is such a joy to be back in touch with people who KNOW me.
    I love my family dearly, but they are all men and frankly, they relate differently. I want to hang out with my girlfriends, linger over cups of tea and talk all afternoon about art, movies, gardens, fabric, other friends and changing the world. It’s a rich tapestry and if the men had any inkling at all, they would be jealous!

  • Narelle Davis October 5, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Indeed Patricia. I was delighted to ‘find’ again a very special friend from years ago just last week. I am so grateful to have such a wonderful person in my life again. We will be able to share our optimistic outlook on life and celebrate turning 50 over the next few months.

  • Patricia Volin October 5, 2011 at 9:16 am

    So true, and equally if not more important as we age beyond our middle years.