Older and Wiser? Truths and Myths About Age and Wisdom


You learn as you grow, that is what most people think about wisdom and time. As we got through life and face various hardships, we not only gain resilience but character. However, do we really all get wiser with age? Recently, scientists found the answer.

In a study published by Carolyn Aldwin, the director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University, she and her team found the secret to becoming wiser.

Results of her study indicate it that not only do particular hardships define the character of a person, the way that someone deals with their situation is just as important as what they get out of it.

Wisdom, as defined by Aldwin and the science community, is “self-knowledge, compassion, comfort with uncertainty, and accepting complexity”. In their study, Aldwin and researchers interviewed 15 men and 36 women, ages 56 to 91, to find out how difficult life events have impacted them and how they overcame it. Participants were of all races, ethnicity, and walks of life. Yet, there was a common thread. 83% of them pinpointed the very event that defined who they are today. When reflecting upon the experiment, Aldwin commented that “when [participants were] asked to think about a difficult life event or challenge, people had an answer right away”. It is no wonder that under the stress of a traumatic event, people remember the moment that taught them something about themselves or made them question their very being.

For 38% of participants, the death of a loved one was the most difficult trial they’ve encountered. For approximately 74% of the participants that lost someone dear, the event itself severely challenged their personal meaning and their worldview. However, 11% of participants reported that experiencing their difficult life event gave them a moment of clarity. Their weakest moments gave them the power to realize new things about themselves and reinforce the importance of certain morals. Amongst deaths, other difficult life events participants reported were romantic separation, work-related events (getting fired or retirement), family problems, and health concerns. Most of these events had lasting effects, and the participants could not do anything to change the outcome. In the face of hopelessness, participants had to learn to live with the consequences.

The second part of the interview is just as telling as the first. After participants expressed how the difficult life event impacted their life personal meaning, they were asked about how they coped with the event. Answers from the participants came from all over, but most received and benefited social support, whether or not they searched for it.

Many participants reported that after their experience, they sought help and support from around them. Whether it was from close ones, professionals, or support communities, participants expressed that they help them slowly reflect on themselves and begin the road to healing. Additionally, they often find a new connection and happiness with these social contacts. By sharing their struggle, participants expressed relief and a reconnection to their self-purpose and drive after receiving the social intervention.

On the other hand, some participants reported that they received unsolicited attention. One participant shared that after she lost her husband, her mother insisted on moving in with her to keep her company. The gesture was unwanted and unasked for, but the participant did admit that her mother’s presence provoked her to ask herself why she was seen as unable to handle the situation. This question prompted her to reflect on her dependence on her husband and how his absence has changed her behavior. Her new self-awareness is a strong indication of wisdom and healthy introspection.

Not all unsolicited help is unwanted. In fact, unsolicited support from friends, family, and even strangers left lasting impressions. Some people even found themselves in social movements, finding their identity after discovering a cause and new compassion. Overall, Aldwin and her team realized that social interactions really determine how people behave and think after a difficult event, and that is what decides how wise a person is.

So, does age really come with wisdom? Based on the retelling of 50 lives, the answer is a resounding no. Wisdom may be a complex concept, but without experiencing hardships and learning from it, there is no wisdom to be gained from time alone. Wisdom can come from any age and anyone, so don’t let a number define how wise you really are.

References:

Cohut, M. (2018, February 23). The road to wisdom runs through hardship, study finds. Retrieved from Medical News Today website: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320996.php

Igarashi, H., Levenson, M. R., & Aldwin, C. M. (2018). The development of wisdom: A social-ecological approach. The Journals of Gerontology, 73(8). Retrieved from Oxford Academic database.

LaBier, D. (2018, October 13). Do hardships in life really make you wiser? Retrieved from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201810/do-hardships-in-life-really-make-you-wiser

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