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The Science of Wisdom

By Jonathan Williams What is wisdom? It seems wisdom has the power to lessen anxiety, illuminate patterns, build stronger relationships, and bring meaning to the experience of aging.

A recent New York Times article offers fascinating insight into the concept of wisdom and the role it plays in the lives of older adults. Phyllis Korkki, a Times editor, spoke with psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, and therapists about this elusive concept. She found that wisdom is as important to successful aging as it is rare to find in its purest form.

According to Korkki’s reporting, there are many ways to define wisdom. One foundational text defined wisdom in terms of three necessary components in decision-making, namely cognition, reflection, and compassion.

Another definition includes five components: self-insight, personal growth, self-awareness in the context of family and world history; awareness of life’s ambiguities, and understanding that priorities and values are not absolute.

Other definitions focus on kindness, generosity, or selflessness, while still others focus on the ability to master or control one’s emotions. However, as Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, notes in Korkki’s article, all definitions share a common trend, encompassing the ability to see beyond one’s own perspective. Goleman speaks about the quality as “having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves.”

Focusing on wisdom as including cognition and reflection means that aging plays an important factor in the development of wisdom. As Korkki pointed out, a recent study noted that while older adults take longer to process information, the older mind shows “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences.”

This is because older adults have more information in their brains; can better detect patterns; and, as importantly, variations in patterns that might suggest a different outcome. This more finely-tuned information processing encourages circumspection, which in turn encourages deeper thought and reflection, another key component of wisdom as traditionally defined in the literature.

Professor Monika Ardelt has performed research on these concepts and their relation to coping skills in adults. She developed a survey meant to gauge participants’ wisdom—valuing responses such as interest in problems without obvious solutions, a level of comfort when spending time with different kinds of people, and tolerance for arguments from an opposing point of view—and coupled the results with another survey meant to gauge coping skills, finding a high correlation between the two, suggesting that wisdom can relieve anxiety due to its positive effect on coping skills.

Returning to Dr. Goleman’s insight about wisdom as the ability to see beyond one’s own perspective, it is easy to see how this can contribute to successful aging.

Some examples of having this perspective, includes:

  • An ability to see that what one might perceive as declining appearance, sexual performance, physical abilities, and memory as a normal and natural part of all human life;

  • An ability to offer a lifetime’s worth of experience and insight as a gift to those who seek advice;

  • An ability to understand that bad things can, and often do, happen to good peopleAn ability to admit mistakes, seek redemption, and learn;

  • An ability to focus not so much on what you need and deserve, but on what you can contribute;

  • An ability to identify goals that are appropriate for current (and perhaps diminished) capacities

All of these can combine to turn the process of aging into something meaningful, and something to embrace rather than to fear or avoid.

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