Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Wisdom Grows With Age

July 16, 2001

There is one quality that improves with age. That quality happens to be a wonderful virtue. It is wisdom.

Wisdom encompasses other virtues. Wisdom incorporates other virtues that are essential to happiness. A wise person will have embraced principles of love, service and concern for others as a part of one's life. These are the essence of success in human relationships. A wise person will have learned that.

Also, a truly wise person governs his or her own life according to high standards of human conduct. Thus, being wise means having learned to be good. Not living by the truth one knows is to be a fool. Wise people have excellent character.

In wisdom, experience counts. That's where age has an advantage. However, just living long isn't enough to make a person wise. A person can have many experiences and still not learn much.

A wise person learns from experience, is successful at solving their own problems, and knows himself or herself well. Wisdom comes after a mixture of success and failure experiences.

Wise people learn from other’s mistakes. A wise person understands people, learns from them, and is skillful in interpreting and communicating principles of living to others. A person who develops wisdom is an alert and observant student of life. He or she is open-minded, willing to doubt their own understanding, and slow in coming to judgment.

Wisdom is a broad form of human understanding that guides people to sound judgment and action. Long life, including passing through many of life's transitions and milestones, gives perspective and experience with human dilemmas and problems. By being good observers, reflecting on their own lives and the lives of others, they become experts on the course, variations, dynamics and conflicts of life.

Detachment and acceptance of limitations. Older people reach a point in their personality development where they can detach from their own self-concerns and are more able to be objective about the concerns and feelings of others.

Also, older people may be more aware of the limits of their own knowledge and of life's uncertainties. This adds perspective, depth, and caution in the type of judgments and counsel they offer. Wisdom is finding the balance between action and inaction, knowledge and doubts, emotion and detachment.

Older people become more reflective and less prone to act without considering the consequences of their actions. One study found that as middle-aged executives mature, they increase in their ability to detach, generalize, and become more abstract in their problem-solving. One contribution age makes to wisdom is that age brings with it a heightened awareness of personal limitations and the limitations of life.

Youth learns about itself and tests its strength as it resists limitations. Age brings us to term with ourlimitations. With age, we have less action, more doubts, more detachment - more wisdom.

The following poem entitled, "Wisdom" by Sara Teasdale, captures how age and acceptance of reality bring wisdom.

When I have ceased to beat my wings

Against the faultiness of things,

And learned that compromises wait

Behind each partly opened gate,

When I look life in the eyes,

Grown, calm and very coldly wise,

Life will have given me the truth,

And taken in exchange my youth.

Research on wisdom. In a study by Heckhausen, the views of young, middle-aged and older adults were solicited about the desirability and onset of more than 300 psychological attributes, for example: aggressive, curious, excitable, intelligent, materialistic, proud, and wise. People were asked, which of these attributes they expected to "become more apparent, stronger and/or more frequent with age." They were also to indicate the age of expected onset and the desirability of the change.

Only two "desirable" attributes were expected to become frequent and stronger during the late adulthood: wisdom and dignity. On average, wisdom was felt to evolve after 55 and to grow to, on average, to about age 85. Three attributes that aren’t particularly desirable were also associated with old age: caution, forgetful and bitter.

Researchers, under the direction of psychologist Paul Baltes, asked people to react to vignettes about the difficult life matters involving life planning and life review and then offer advice. Their responses were judged according to five criteria for wisdom: rich factual knowledge, rich procedural knowledge, context, relativism and uncertainty.

Older adults did well in comparison to other age groups. The data suggests that older adults continue to evolve in their knowledge and that they were among the top performers in reasoning tasks dealing with practical and social intelligence.

In a different study, subjects were asked to nominate "wise" people and then describe their characteristics. Seventy-eight percent associated wisdom with older age. Most people nominated were middle-aged to old. There is a cultural recognition that wisdom increases with age.

To be wise about oneself and about life in old age is a gift - a gift that adds grace and dignity to the aging process.