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Wisdom:….deeper meaning… ‘with all thy getting get understanding.’

July 14, 2010

In the morass of research on the negative effects of aging, I have been searching for good news.  I have become weary of the cultural stereotype, of graph after graph that demonstrates the inevitable cognitive decline with age accompanied by intellectual deterioration, of being less happy, and lonely.

Most who research cognitive issues have an exclusive focus on comparisons between the old and the young and on those cognitive mechanisms that do seem to decline with age. The old and the young are often at different levels: in memory tasks it is the amount of text or list of numbers recalled,  and in problem-solving it is the number of solutions generated.

Gains that can occur as we age: a different perspective

I think we need a positive perspective, one that can observe some of the gains that occur in our cognitive abilities as we age. It seems that with age our gains may reside in the social areas. In that kind of context the older adult can demonstrate competence in

  • everyday problem solving,
  • coping,
  • moral reasoning, and
  • wisdom.

A recent research study shows that social reasoning improves with age (despite a decline in fluid intelligence) and  that it might be advisable to assign older individuals to key social roles involving legal decisions, counseling, and inter-group negotiations.

AT LAST…..a  researcher is perceiving a positive role and contribution to society for the older person.

Wisdom, self awareness and life’s unpredictability

Wisdom is regarded as a rare human quality: it is considered to be very different from intellectual knowledge. In old age it reflects a desire to know the significance and deeper meaning of life.

There is an acceptance that

  • Life is often contradictory, a paradox in fact (an important life lesson for me has been to learn to live with paradox).
  • Life is unfailingly unpredictable

Our life experience and our age means that it is possible to bring much social knowledge to a situation, the accumulation of experience, particular cultural influences etc.

Monika Ardelt writes about acquiring wisdom

“To achieve this deeper comprehension of reality one first has to overcome one’s subjectivity and projections (i.e., tendency to blame others for one’s own situation) through the practice of reflection. The reflective component represents self-examination, self-awareness, and the ability to observe phenomena from different perspectives. As reflection is likely to reduce one’s self-centredness and promote greater empathy for others, the affective component consists of a wise person’s sympathetic and compassionate love for others. Wisdom is then an ideal state that might rarely exist in reality.”

Positive psychology: dealing with the ups and downs of life

Irrespective of their particular circumstances, wise elders are more likely to be satisfied with life because they are better able to deal with the vicissitudes of life. Furthermore, wiser adults experienced improvement in their psychological health during and after an event (such as living through the Depression), while less wise adults experienced a decline in well-being (Ardelt, 1998).

Learn from life’s lessons

Crises and hardships in a person’s life do not automatically result in wisdom. Rather, development of wisdom requires a willingness to learn from life’s lessons and to be transformed in the process. Hence, it appears that wisdom can increase with age but that such personal growth also requires motivation, determination, and self­ reflection.You also have to be open to all kinds of experiences to do the necessary inner work that the development of wisdom demands. So wisdom may well increase with age for those people who have the motivation and the opportunity to pursue its acquisition.

Wisdom in the information age:a challenge for young people

It is also possible to find wisdom in younger people, particularly those who have become wise beyond their years by dealing with hardships in their life, such as serious health or family problems. However, in  the information age, information is generated in ever smaller segments, for increasingly narrow purposes: will our understanding of the world become more and more fragmented and its inhabitants often overwhelmed and unwise? Let’s hope not.

Pascual-Leone, J. (2000). Mental attention, consciousness, and the progressive emergence of wisdom. Journal of Adult Development, 7(4),241-254.
Kramer, D. A. (2000). Wisdom as a classical source of human strength: Conceptu­alization and empirical inquiry. ]ournal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(1),83-101b .
Grossman, I. et al.(2005) Reasoning about social conflicts improves with age. PNAS
Ardelt, M. (2008). Being wise at any age. In S. 1. Lopez (Ed.): Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people. Volume 1: Discovering human strengths (pp. 81-108). Westport, CT: Praeger.

The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm:-

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