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Wise Up to the Various Sources of Wisdom

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My aunts were wise.  When I was newly married, they emphasized the importance of being able to take care of myself.  Their sage words came in handy.  When I was divorced and raised my children (now in their 50s) as a single working mom, I indeed was self-reliant.   At 75, I now feel I have my own wisdom.  What exactly is it?  Is it related to the years I have lived, my brain chemistry, knowledge or life experiences? Just curious.

Answer: Social scientists, philosophers, biblical scholars and even presidents have offered their definitions of wisdom.

John Rowe and Robert Kahn, authors of the classic book “Successful Aging” (Pantheon, 1998), quote a Berlin model of aging that defines wisdom as the “ability to exercise good judgment on important, but uncertain matters”– a definition also used by President Jimmy Carter.

In his book, “The Creative Age” (Avon Books, 2000), the late geriatrician Dr. Gene D. Cohen defined wisdom as a product of “age, smarts and emotional and practical life experience.” He further explained that wisdom allows us to respond to complex situations with more than one answer.  It is an integration of our thinking and feeling, and our hearts and minds.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, took a physiological approach to wisdom in a study lead by Dr. Dilip V. Jeste and colleagues.  Their findings confirmed that older adults are wiser than younger people.  One reason is that the older brain produces less dopamine, which means older adults are less impulsive and less driven by emotions.

The researchers also noted that older adults are slower to respond than younger people, a fact that may be perceived as a disadvantage.  But if one views wisdom as perfect knowledge and judgment, that extra time to reflect is likely a benefit.

A different perspective is presented by Dr. George E Valliant, author of “Aging Well” (Little Brown & Co., 2002), and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.  He writes that there is little evidence that older people are wiser than other people over 30.

“Jefferson, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln, Tolstoy and Shakespeare all reached the pinnacle of their wisdom between ages 30 and 60,” he writes. But Valliant also says it is hard to believe that wisdom does not increase with time. “Until 40, most of us don’t have the experience to be put in a position of a wise person.”

Geriatrician Dr. William Bortz, author of “Dare to be 100” (Fireside, 1996), notes, “The opportunity to grow wise is one of the advantages of being older.”  Wisdom reminds us that there is no situation without hope and that time is a powerful healer.

Despite the varied definitions of wisdom and the lack of clarity about age as a requirement, several themes emerge:

  • Knowledge is a basis for wisdom; you need to know something.
  • Wise individuals do not act on impulse; they know better and their brains likely prevent impulsive responses.
  • Wise people have the ability to interpret knowledge.
  • Knowledge can come from books or experience.
  • To be wise, individuals need to have opportunities for growth and creativity.
  • Experience is a cornerstone of wisdom.
  • Introspection, reflection and intuition play a role.
  • Successful aging is enhanced with wisdom.

Mark Twain provided us with a view of wisdom:  “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Thank you for your thought-provoking question.  Collective research, knowledge and experience from experts indicate that wisdom is a combination of years lived, life experiences, brain chemistry, knowledge and more.  Continue to use your wisdom well and enjoy.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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