The debate over the connection between wisdom and aging has swirled like a storm on the horizon for ages. Who’s to say that growing older means getting wiser?
Intuitively, we want to believe we have earned our wisdom stripes through life’s escapades and experiences and have, presumably, become wiser as a result. Not always, Kemosabe.
Experience, knowledge, understanding and good judgment are fundamental components of wisdom. We gain only one of those – experience – through the mere feat of chronological aging.
Wisdom is an experience-based trait that varies wildly depending on how you’ve lived your life so far. Think about it this way. If we’ve lived with character, humility and kindness, chances are we would be considered wiser than the average bear.
If we’ve consistently made questionable choices, been boastful and find ourselves in frequent turmoil, the words used to describe us may not be so nice.
The bottom line is no one is entitled to wisdom. It is largely earned by the good choices we make and how we respond to people and situations that cross our paths.
But there is interesting research out there suggesting physiological changes in aging brains may deepen our capacity for wisdom.
Wisdom & Aging
According to Dilip Jeste, a renowned geriatric neurophsychiatrist specializing in wisdom and other positive attributes of the aging brain, wisdom, indeed, increases with aging.
“Many, but not all studies show, that older people have higher levels of most of the components of wisdom. In behavior, older people are calmer and more positive,” he said in a 2015 TedMed talk.
How can an aging brain possibly allow wisdom to increase? “In people who keep themselves active, physically, cognitively and socially, the brain continues to evolve in old age,” Jeste said. “That is, the neuroplasticity of the brain in late life (continues to evolve). And this neuroplasticity helps improve the function of the brain region associated with wisdom.”
If I Knew Then What I Know Now
So what does it take to earn the wisdom badge in life? We must hone our ability to apply the best means possible at the best times to accomplish the best ends. We have to exercise our wisdom muscle AND our physical muscles, as we remain grounded, thoughtful and sensitive to others. I work on this daily, with the belief that I can fine-tune my wisdom over time.
That’s not to say we won’t make mistakes. Developing wisdom can be a messy game. As sure as the garbage truck appears every week, we will step in crap again – but hopefully it’s not the same smelly dung from our past. We learn from our mistakes. And we have a beautiful opportunity for do-overs with the benefit of wisdom and experience.
Perhaps Jeste sums it up best, “The next time you lament your upcoming birthday, remember that a whole new year of greater wisdom and greater happiness is waiting just for you.”
If you haven’t read The Four Agreements, a Practical Guide to Self-Mastery by Don Miguel Ruiz, I would recommend it highly. Learning these four core principles was one of the first steps I took on the road to changing my course in life.
- Be Impeccable With Your Word – Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
- Don’t Take Anything Personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
- Don’t Make Assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.
- Always Do Your Best – Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it is different when you are healthy versus sick. Under any circumstances, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.
For more information on wisdom research, check out The Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago, www.wisdomresearch.org.