As many of us know, Erik Erikson’s theory of the life course proposes a developmental task or crisis for eight stages of life.  The task designated for old age, the eighth stage of life, is integrity versus despair.  Fewer of us may remember that Erikson also identified a particular strength for each life stage that results from the successful resolution of the crisis.  For late adulthood, his theory identified the strength of wisdom.

Much has been written about wisdom but the concept is still an elusive one.  How do we define wisdom in mid-life?  Are we there yet?? 

One review of the literature on wisdom defined it as “the application of tacit knowledge [practical knowledge, or knowing how to do things] toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among intrapersonal, interpersonal and extra- personal interests” (Sternberg & Lubart, 2001, p. 507). That definition of wisdom places a high value on applied knowledge, what our parents’ generation may have called “street smarts,” but tempered by the ability to see and appreciate the needs and viewpoints of others. 

The association of the concept of wisdom with growing older equates accumulated life experience with becoming wiser.  The late Paul Baltes and his colleagues in Berlin have devoted much attention to the concept of wisdom, mostly through a series of studies that asked adult participants open-ended questions about life-management problems.  One of their first wisdom-related publications reported on the development of a five-component model of what constitutes a wise response (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000), as follows:

  • Rich factual knowledge about life
  • Rich procedural knowledge about life
  • Putting things into a lifespan context
  • Relativism of values (appreciating others’ values)
  • Recognition of uncertainty

But are older adults wiser than younger people?  This same work by Baltes’ group showed that wisdom-related responses remained stable from young adulthood up till about age 75, disappointing those who would like to see a true increase in wisdom with age (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).  However, undeterred, several geriatric psychiatrists conducted a study which surveyed a group of influential thinkers and researchers about wisdom found that, “Most experts agreed on many of the suggested characteristics of wisdom—that is, it is uniquely human; a form of advanced cognitive and emotional development that is experience driven; and a personal quality, albeit a rare one, which can be learned, increases with age, [and] can be measured,” (Jeste, Ardelt, Blazer, et al., 2010).

So according to these sources, the research may not show that existing measures of wisdom correlate with increased age, but the experts still believe that wisdom is age-related.  Certainly, in common usage, the idea of wisdom is associated with a kindly bearded older man or a sweet, gentle older woman.  We think of wisdom as a calm, measured understanding of life’s hard knocks and difficult decisions.  When a younger person demonstrates this quality, we may call him “wise beyond his years.”

Age enters the equation in part because wisdom is associated with empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings based on having experienced similar events or feelings oneself.  Furthermore, the older we get, the less self-motivated and more available to others we can be.  Perhaps in later life, we are less socially and biologically distracted by our impulses and emotions.  As Erikson would put it, we have already resolved those earlier developmental tasks, and have thus shed our need to make something of ourselves, mate, and raise our offspring.

A contemporary theory of aging, gerotranscendence (Tornstam, 1997) posits that in advanced old age, the older person who is developing optimally evolves to the point of experiencing less concern with material cares, personal aches, pains and losses, and is able to identify more strongly with humanity and the universe as a whole. This ideal of late-life wisdom with a spiritual overlay is not readily achieved, but the theory further solidifies the idea that wisdom increases with age. 

In our middle adult years, it appears we cannot count on being wise simply by getting older.  But can we better cultivate our wisdom?  If we take a cue from the cognitive behaviorists, the notion of “wise mind” might help us. In this context, wisdom might arise from personal strategies to remain informed, open, compassionate, self-reflective, and engaged in the physical world. 

  • It is possible to stay informed by paying attention to reliable news sources and continuing to learn about new things.
  • Openness can be developed by exposure to others, by considering opinions different from our own, and by weighing various theories and explanations before jumping to conclusions.
  • Compassion or empathy comes naturally to some people, but can be nurtured by consciously trying to imagine thinking of others’ needs and points of view.
  • Self-reflection can be achieved by processing difficult situations and emotions through means such as meditation or prayer, journaling, psychotherapy, or discussions with trusted others.
  • And finally, it is through synching the body with the mind through real experience: exercise, sexual intimacy, dance, art- or music-making, cooking real food, playing with children or pets, being outside in nature—anything “analog”—that we keep in touch with our range of emotions, our physical bodies, and our status as humans, a good start towards wisdom at any age. 

References

Baltes, P.B. & Staudinger, U.M.  (2000). Wisdom: A meta-heuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55, 122–136.

Jeste, D.V., Ardelt, M., Blazer, D., Kraemer, H.C., Vaillant, G. & Meeks, T.W. (2010). Expert Consensus on Characteristics of Wisdom: A Delphi Method Study. The Gerontologist. 50(5), 668–680.

Sternberg, R., & Lubart, T. (2000). Wisdom and creativity. In J. Birren & K. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging (5th ed.), pp. 500-522. New York: Academic Press.

Tornstam, L (1997).  Gerotranscendence: The contemplative dimension of aging.  Journal of Aging Studies, 11(2), 143-154.

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