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Aging & Wisdom

Posted Jan 11 2010 12:00am


“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” William James
“Respond intelligently... even to unintelligent treatment.” Lao Tzu
"We are as happy as we make up our minds to be." Abraham Lincoln
"To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it." Confucius

Life span theorist (with an emphasis on cognitive plasticity in old age) Paul Baltes of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, wrote much about what has been termed the "Berlin Wisdom Paradigm". This holds that as we age - even into our 80's and beyond - we (may) become wise, although this depends on a series of factors:
  • Rich factual knowledge about life – on topics such as human nature, behaviour and development and social norms 
  • Rich procedural knowledge about life – for example, having processes for decision making through weighing up pros and cons, including emotional content
  • Life span contextualisation, for example knowledge of different life stages, and the impacts of significant events/periods of life
  • Value relativism and tolerance, appreciating difference and having sensitivity 
  • Understanding that not everything is certain, and having ways to deal well with, or live with, uncertainty (Source)
(Baltes helped pioneer life-span developmental theory, which argues that in order to understand, say, a 60-year-old person, you need to take into account the individual’s biology, psychology and sociological context at various stages of life, as well as the cultural and historical era in which he or she lived. Source)

Indeed, together with his partner Margaret Balten, Paul Baltes wrote in "Harvesting the Fruits of Age: Growing Older, Growing Wise":

"The good news of old age even includes some aspects of psychological functioning where there is hope for age-associated advance in functioning. Two examples are emotional intelligence and wisdom. In emotional intelligence, that is, the ability to understand the causes of emotions (such as hate, love, or anxiety) and the ways to control and use them effectively for problem solving, we seem to improve with age. This improvement is particularly noticeable when difficult interpersonal problems of life are involved."

"The second example of an instance of positive aging and a new frontier of mastery is wisdom. Historically, wisdom is the peak of human excellence, the perfect integration of knowledge and character. In extensive research being conducted at the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, wisdom is defined as "expert knowledge about life in general and good judgement and advice about how to conduct oneself in the face of complex, uncertain circumstances." New York Times

"Our research results have supported the notion that wisdom is a domain where older adults can excel. Older adults in particular seem to have acquired the dispositions and skills to benefit from such social exchanges with others to solve the dilemmas of life. Here may lie the foundation for the many success stories of grandfathers, grandmothers, and older mentors who are able to express warmth, understanding, and guidance."

"For us, such findings on the age-friendliness of wisdom-related knowledge and skills are cause for optimism. Only during the last century have so many people reached old age. With more and more people living longer, and thus — at least potentially — growing wiser and wiser, who is to say what the aging mind may contribute to the future?"

To this end, and to further understand these concepts in more manageable, laymen-like terms, I offer two articles from the New York Times:
And for anyone who delights in a slightly more academic approach:
Photo: Chad

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