We 21st-century seniors are not going gently into that good night. Unlike our parents, who were resigned to growing up and getting old, we’re passing 60 and – gasp – 70, kicking and screaming all the way. Many of us refuse to get old at all. We go on juice fasts and botox up a storm in a desperate rush to stay young.
But wait. If you’re determined never to grow old, how can you ever be old and wise? You just morph into a wrinkled adolescent.
On the other side, there’s our infatuation with “positive aging,” the idea that getting older means getting better – more creative, happier, more serene. Every wrinkle and “silver” hair (OK, gray) is a sign of more wisdom. We’re the elders; respect is due.
I don’t feel better and more serene — I ‘m achy, cranky and can’t remember shit. Why can’t I experience some inner peace forgodsakes? I want to finally grow up, get it right. I want to feel that I’ve finished my unfinished business; to be someone who accepts herself the way she is instead of sitting around wishing she had thinner thighs; to finally become wise. I should be able to accomplish this tiny task. After all, I’ve been in therapy my entire life.
But it’s not so simple. Because, really, is wisdom a natural outcome of aging?
What is Wisdom, Anyway, in the Digital Age?
Before the advent of the printed word and long before the Information Age, wisdom was defined by knowledge, and it was the exclusive domain of elders. Wise decision-making requires history, and only the elders had been around long enough to know much. They were the Wikipedias of their communities.
With the Internet at our disposal, who needs elder knowledge? And without that edge, what confers the badge of wisdom on older people?
Can it really be grey hair and wrinkles?
Can’t young people be wise?
And is it ever too late to attain wisdom?
I decided to ask three wise women – today’s most prominent wisdom researchers. In talking to them, I found out that even the experts don’t entirely agree on what wisdom is and how you come by it. I also discovered that many of our cherished assumptions about wisdom are dead wrong – and that I’m a lot wiser than I thought I was.
Wise Woman 1: Dr. Vivian Clayton
The three components of wisdom
In her search for answers, Clayton studied the ancient texts, including the Old Testament. From these texts and several interviews she conducted, she learned that wisdom involves three key components:
- Reflection – in other words, bringing a broad perspective to that knowledge so it leads to insights
- Compassion – ie: using those insights to help others.
That’s where her formal research stopped; the Reagan era wasn’t known for its focus on wisdom, and Clayton couldn’t get funded.
The road to wisdom: slowing down?
In her 60s, Clayton still practices as a neuropsychologist working with older people., and now that she’s a senior herself, she brings a personal perspective to the definition of wisdom. She spoke with me from her home in Orinda, California and answered a burning question: What’s the best way to develop knowledge, insight and compassion? How can I get wise as I grow older?
“By slowing down,” she told me. “People who are reflective and aware have gained wisdom,” Clayton says, but you need the luxury of unstructured time to do that.
“Our biology virtually mandates that we slow down, whether we’re cooking or thinking.” But, instead of schmoozing on our porches with family and friends as our grandparents did, we now feel pressured to keep going at full throttle.
“You shouldn’t admire the ADHD types,” Clayton stresses. “There are things that can’t be changed with age, and you need to feel good about that, to revel in it.”
I told Dr. Clayton that I hate to be busy and am frustrated by having to make dates two weeks in advance to see friends. She emailed me after our interview:
“Hi Erica – you are one of the few people I have ‘met’ in recent years who doesn’t like to overschedule…. If one can allow that to happen as one ages, then one is on the path of wisdom.”
Sounded good to me. But then, not all wise women agree that the slow road leads to the palace of wisdom.
Wise Woman 2: Dr. Monica Ardelt
Like Clayton, Monica Ardelt, a professor of sociology at University of Florida in Gainesville, came to wisdom research through the study of old age. She wanted to learn why some older people are resilient and bounce back from major losses, while others can’t cope and sink into depression. Ardelt decided that rather than resilience leading to wisdom, the reverse might be true: coping well with crises and hardships might be the traits that help us gain wisdom.
Whatever their age, “wise people know that whatever is going on, that this too shall pass,” Ardelt told me. They don’t sweat the small stuff.
Ardelt looked at Clayton’s three-component definition of wisdom – knowledge, reflection, compassion – and decided that reflection is the most important. You can only become wise by seeing the big picture.
How do you get there? First, by looking at things from other perspectives and acknowledging your role when things go bad rather than blaming others.
“If you understand yourself, if you see your own positive and negative sides,” Ardelt says, “you become less egocentric. Being less egocentric helps you tolerate others who aren’t so perfect either, which gives you the element of compassion that’s also a crucial part of wisdom.”
That botoxed older babe on the beach? Don’t judge!
So, are older people wiser than younger people?
Ardelt has come up with a 39-question scale to measure wisdom, which she used to figure out whether older people actually are wiser than younger people. She tested 477 college students and 178 older adults.
And the answer…
Age does not equal wisdom. The only exceptions were at the top of the scale; some seniors scored higher than students on self-reflection and emotional maturity. Many didn’t.
My wisdom score: Moderately wise
I took Monica Ardelt’s wisdom test and didn’t exactly fail it, but I only scored “moderately wise.” I know where I lost points. I truthfully reported that I still have regrets and fantasize about revenge. Ardelt told me that if you hang on to the past it always drags you back.
“We’re all a work in progress,” she reassured me, wisely. “It helps to develop self-forgiveness – an attitude of ‘this was me, I know better now, but I didn’t know better then.’”
Wise Woman 3: Dr. Ursula Staudinger
Lifespan psychologist Ursula Staudinger, director of the Columbia Aging Center in NYC, cofounded the Berlin Wisdom Project in Germany during the ’80s. She drew a line between general wisdom, the ability to give good advice to others, and personal wisdom, the ability to gain deep insight into your own life’s failures and successes.
Staudinger made the discouraging discovery that not only can we be wise when we’re younger; both types of wisdom actually decline with age.
Why wisdom usually declines with age
“As we approach the last phase of life, our task is to come to grips with terminality,” Staudinger says, referring to the thing we’re all trying not to think about: death.
Because we have to accept that we’re not on the planet forever – a painful task – our psyches motivate us to make peace with ourselves and feel good about our life choices, “even though in most cases our lives are not what we thought they would be,” Staudinger says.
Most of us manage to get to this place of inner peace – but that doesn’t help us attain personal wisdom; in fact, it stops us from getting wise. Wisdom, Staudinger says, means grappling with the opposing positives and negatives within our selves – what we did wrong and could have done better. And that’s a lot more difficult than staying positive.
Pinterest “inspiration board” aficionados, take note.
Surely general wisdom – the advice-giving type – must improve with age, I suggest to Staudinger.
“When it comes to giving advice to others, we find in our work a zero relationship with age and wisdom,” she says.
But, what about our lifetime of experience? “It’s not enough to have experiences – you have to analyze them, understand them, draw insight from them. Not everyone does that.”
“The basis of wisdom is meeting challenges,” Staudinger adds. “You need to be confronted with unexpected experiences to call into question what you’ve been doing in the past.”
Bottom line: Keep trying new things.
So Am I Wise or Am I Not?
How do I score for wisdom? Based on what I’ve learned on my quest to find out the meaning of the word, I’m a lot wiser than I’d thought – at least, I’m on the right track.
I’m taking life slow and not blaming anyone else for mistakes in my past. I find myself dismayed with my fear of trying new things – for example, I used to love to travel; now I can’t face the stress – but I’ve challenged myself by learning about technology and going to Meetups to meet new people. I try to be compassionate about the sufferings of others. (Although secretly, I enjoy seeing vegans suffer.) How about my longing for those thinner thighs? Will that get in the way of my wisdom award?
Has the Proliferation of Digital Technologies Affected Wisdom?
I used Google to start my investigation of wisdom after wondering whether the idea of elder wisdom still holds now that we all have knowledge at our fingertips. So I asked the wise women, Do you think the advent of the Internet has had any effect on wisdom?
“I don’t think that it influences the core of what wisdom is about,” Staudinger responded by email. “It may change the way we can accumulate insights about the world and about life …..”
Clayton agreed – and disagreed: “Wisdom is a human characteristic, possibly enhanced by technology, but not created nor destroyed by it. One can gather more ‘knowledge/information,’ but the qualities of ‘compassion’ and ‘reflection,’ the other two legs of wisdom, have yet to be related or created by technology. In fact, technology seems to have eaten into the value placed on reflection and the necessary component of time required for its nurturance.”
Sounds like we all need to become excellent Googlers – and then unplug.
How wise are you, and has the Internet played a role? Take the wisdom test and let us know in the comments below.