We’re Older – But Are We Really Wiser?

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

vivian-clayton-senior-planetA geriatric neuropsychologist, Dr. Clayton is the grandmother of wisdom research. During the early ’80s, she was the first researcher to ask what wisdom means and how age affects it.

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:

  • Knowledge
  • 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

Monica-Ardelt-senior-planetLike 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.

Know thyself

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.

You can take the test here.

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

ursula-staudinger-senior-planetLifespan 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.

For more information about wisdom research and the relationship between wisdom and age, click here and here.

How wise are you, and has the Internet played a role? Take the wisdom test and let us know in the comments below.


10 responses to “We’re Older – But Are We Really Wiser?

  1. Hey y’all. I took the test even though it’s been a year since it came out and most likely no one will read my comment. Because I love tests, surveys, and questionnaires. Love. I scored a 4.1. So that’s not too bad I think. I’ve got the “achy and cranky” for sure. Once in awhile I send a shout-out to my younger self and thank her for doing something that turned out well for me, like all that dental care and sunscreen and learning to read. The regrets I have are ALL about this or that relationship that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on. I’m 66 and I like it. You couldn’t pay me to be young again; life was so confusing to me when I was younger. And men were really pigs in the 1960s.

    BTW I needed to browse with Firefox to see the test in the New York Times.

  2. I scored 3.7. For what it is worth, I feel more successful at 66 than ever before in my life.
    I’d like to be a less busy but I have a full-time job and a memoir coming out this year.

    Things will slow down when I retire
    in a few years. Then I will devote all my
    time to writing & running workshops.
    Meanwhile I’m adding years to my
    pension plan. I think that is wise

    No major health complaints. Just dont
    have the energy level I had when younger

  3. I also scored moderately wise – largely because I am not willing to consider everyone’s viewpoints. I spent much of my career working with low-income/no-income and homeless people and know that our society is often utterly merciless to the poor. I just got really tired of trying to understand the public’s lack of compassion; I have no interest in the knee-jerk “bootstraps” school of thought. The other thing that struck me in reading this article is people’s obsession with saying “I’m 70, but I’m really 18!!”. What? You never grew up or had any maturing experiences? Nothing bad ever happened to you – no cancer, no children who were born with a major disability, no sudden death of a spouse? I count myself fortunate to have had some very difficult experiences, which helped me grow. Seriously, you could not pay me to be 18 again.

  4. I turned out relatively wise and — I didn’t cheat very much!! Haha. A testament to my therapist’s efforts over many years! and the love of my church, family and friends in putting up with me. At 75, I am kinda proud of my wisdom and I’m still working part time and spreading it around!

  5. Well, Erica, your article is interesting, but I’m afraid that by writing this:

    “(Although secretly, I enjoy seeing vegans suffer.) ”

    you’ve shown to lack wisdom yourself. I’m a vegan of 44 years (when this word wasn’t even known, at least to me) and it ‘s the best happening in my life from many viewpoints. :o)

  6. I’d take the test if I could get past the NYT subscription screen! SO frustrating when they claim that those of us who can’t afford their pricey subscription can still access 10 free articles per month. Actually, no we can’t!

    1. I couldn’t get it to work on an iPad, but it worked fine on my PC using Firefox. Maybe the NYT isn’t into Apple products, or the survey is written in Java. Apple operating systems don’t work with Java.

      Judy, who’s a 4.0, and that’s evidently not a “straight A” grade,

      1. Thanks. I’ll give that a try. I did make attempts with both with Bing and Safari but neither of those worked.

  7. Both funny and thought-provoking! At 60, I certainly hope I’m wiser than I was at 20. Slowing down has been a gradual thing, but, it’s very comfortable now. A big “me too” on the “achy and cranky”!

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