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It takes time to wise up

. . . But that doesn't mean older people automatically possess wisdom, says a professor who has studied the subject.

Published October 7, 2003

Think about your circle of friends, your family, your co-workers.

In each bunch, you likely have the "deep" one who philosophizes about the meaning of life. Then there's the open-minded one, willing to hear everyone's point of view. And, of course, the sweet one who feels everyone's pain.

But is there a wise one among you?

To be wise, a person must have all three components: the ability to understand life (cognitive), the willingness to see situations from different perspectives (reflective) and genuine compassion for others (affective).

Or so says University of Florida sociology professor Monika Ardelt, whose study on wisdom was published in the May issue of Research on Aging.

Ardelt's study involved surveys given to 180 people from 18 religious, social and civic groups in the Gainesville area. The participants, from age 52 to 87, answered whether they strongly agreed or disagreed with a series of questions such as: "Things often go wrong for me by no fault of my own," "Ignorance is bliss," and "A person either knows the answer to a question or he/she doesn't."

Her results showed that high doses of the three components meant less depression in old age. Also, wise people had a higher sense of general well-being and were less likely to feel economic pressure or to fear death.

We recently asked Ardelt about her study, the importance of wisdom and how people can get more of it.

What does your study tell us?

Well, it means that people who were scoring high on those combination of cognitive, reflective and affective characteristics, that they also tended to enjoy life more and they felt that they were more in control of their life and they felt that they had a higher sense of meaning and purpose in life.

The concept of wisdom has been around awhile, dating back to biblical times?

Earlier than that. I think the concept of wisdom has always been around because I think it is really connected to basic human questions: Why are we here? What's the best way to lead our lives? What's the meaning and purpose of life? And so on. Historically, it was connected to the elders of society because they had been around. They had life experiences. And they were the most likely to be able to answer those questions. Is this still true? Is wisdom related to age? I would say no, not necessarily, because you can grow old without being wise or becoming wiser. Particularly now. In previous times, there were very few older people around, so the older people had some kind of secrets that they grew older: You know, how did they make it? Because it was quite difficult. You had to be able to survive. Now, a lot of people survive till old age, so it's not such a feat anymore, you know. And so, because of that, often the wisdom of the elders is devalued. I think there are still a lot of old wise people around, but also probably a lot of them that are not so wise. And so, it's not automatically that just by growing older, you get wiser. You have to learn something from life, learn something from experience.

But being older helps, right?

Yes, growing wiser takes time. And because of that, the older you get, the higher is your chance to gain in wisdom. It's not easy to become wiser. You have to experience things and you have to learn from these experiences. Now, it doesn't mean that young people cannot be wise. You know when we hear that there are young kids sometimes who are wise beyond their years? This often happens when they have experienced some traumatic event and they have dealt with it in a positive way. These are typically the kids that we would consider wiser beyond their years. They might have a life-threatening illness. They might have lost parents - really traumatic events. And if they have coped with it in a positive way, then they often gain wisdom.

In your study, you mention that people view wisdom differently in Eastern cultures than in Western cultures.

This really goes to an internal scientific discussion about (whether) the affective component is important in wisdom. And I think it is. The affective component is the sympathy and compassion for others. . . . In the Eastern tradition, clearly compassion and sympathy for others is always a component of wisdom. If you look, for example, at Buddhist philosophy, the wisdom you gain through experiences or through progressing on the path to enlightenment always results in compassion for others.

What impact does spirituality have on wisdom?

That depends on how you define spirituality. If you equate spirituality with religion, how religious people are - well, wise people aren't more or less religious than others. . . . However, if you define spirituality as a sense of meaning in life, purpose and meaning in life, then of course, you have the strong relationship between wisdom and the sense of meaning and purpose in life. So it depends how you define it. I haven't measured this, but I would think that probably wise people would be more forgiving. And wise people are clearly more loving because this is a component, this is how I define wisdom. So, if you go with that, if you say spirituality is loving others, finding meaning and purpose in life, then yes, there would be a relationship.

How can we use your study in a practical way?

What it shows, because these were older people, is that wisdom is very important in old age. And how do you get wisdom? You don't get it suddenly in old age. So that basically means you have to prepare for the experience of old age throughout your whole life because to develop wisdom does take time. So we should try to become wiser over the years, so that once we are old, we are actually wiser than we were in our youth and we can better deal with the vicissitudes in old age and a lot of the hardships in old age.

How do you prepare yourself to be wise?

Some people compare life to a schoolhouse; you know, it's basically a schoolhouse. You learn each and every experience you encounter is like a lesson. Somebody ticks you off, well how do you deal with that? You can get very angry and you are miserable the whole day, or you can be reflective and say, "Well, yes, this person ticked me off but maybe this person had a miserable day or something happened or maybe there was something that ticked him or her off - what did I do?" And if you do it in this way, if you look at it from different perspectives, then you don't get as angry and you're not miserable for the rest of the day or even longer. And so by learning this, not being miserable, being less miserable day by day, you learn how to deal with life, which will help you to deal with life in old age.

You say in your article that other wisdom studies like this are needed?

I had 180 people. And then it's a regional sample, it's the Gainesville area where I got the people from. So you want to get a more representative sample; you want to get more people. One study never tells you if this is particularly to this particular study or if it can really be more generalizable to other populations. You always have to replicate studies.

Do you consider yourself wise?

No. One of the things you know when you study wisdom is that you are not wise. You know what's missing. But this is one of the things, I know that I don't know. I know what's missing. I know what I could do to react more wisely to things in daily life and when I do it.

But isn't that a part of wisdom - knowing that you don't know?

Yes, that's exactly right. It is. It's a part. It's a step in the right direction. (But) I'm not there yet, definitely not.

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