Current research indicates there are three types of wisdom: cognitive, affective and reflective. The cognitive dimension is related to our understanding of the deeper meaning of life, our responding to the desire to know truth and comprehend the underlying significance of events. The affective dimension is related to our sentiments and actions toward others and tends to increase our sensitivity to what is going on around us. Affective wisdom also enhances our empathetic love and our desire to eliminate apathy and cruelty toward others and therefore promotes a reduction of self-centeredness and other negative personality traits. Reflective wisdom is manifested in our practice of self-reflection and introspection. This awareness of self stimulates the perceptive processes necessary for us and others to acknowledge and understand our own and others’ intentions and conduct, decreases self-absorption and blaming, and increases our ability to understand different perspectives and make positive situational value shifts. Additionally, reflective wisdom helps us to accept our limitations and become aware that there are many ways to see and interpret a phenomenon, even while seeking an ultimate truth. Thus, in the end, because it promotes the development of both cognitive and affective wisdom, reflective wisdom is the most important form.
Wisdom is thought to be a reliable indicator of successful aging, and this wisdom cannot be taught but is obtained only through personal involvement and the willingness to be transformed through personal life experiences, self-reflection, self-awareness and the evolution of one’s inner-self.
Age provides us an opportunity to explore and develop a reflective mode of thinking that includes contemplating the meaning of life, coming to terms with our past by striving for self-fulfillment and spiritual advancement as we prepare for our inevitable end. Wise elders do not begrudge the loss of people or things over which they have no control, but instead treat their own weaknesses with humor as they navigate the natural currents of later life.
Wisdom creates opportunities for transitions that may be disorienting and painful, but also creates pathways to growth and discovery as well as connecting individuals to the deeper meanings of their lives. The purpose of the transition is to help us learn our own personal stories about life so as to avoid repeating our own mistakes and to pass this learned wisdom on to the next generation.
As mentioned earlier, stimulating a person’s will to initiate needed changes frequently takes difficult times. Yet, after looking at a problem from a new and different angle or point of view, we can begin to anticipate challenges and move forward toward solving problems. This change in perception fosters renewed reflective thinking and continues to further our evolution toward wisdom.
In a Harvard study, participants were asked to share what they believed were the benefits of pursuing wisdom and to identify rules of living well they had gathered during their lifetimes and to note what they would consider valuable to pass on to the next generation. Some of their suggestions included:
Be happy into old age
Search for meaning
Live life because it is worth living
Older adults rate their problems as less stressful and have learned that problems happen and that blaming themselves or others for those problems is a waste of time and energy. These older adults adapt, move forward and simply manage the problem. And these adaptive strategy changes appear to be very important for good mental health in later years.
In interviews of over one hundred older adults, all of these adults reported being grateful for the benefits as well as the challenges and lessons of their past. They accepted the positive and the negative, which led to greater patience, humility, tolerance, understanding and compassion. Wisdom, according to them, is a virtue that results from the successful resolution of challenges encountered during their respective stages of development and is apparent in our coming to terms with our past as well as our present. Clearly, wisdom comes with age as a result of transitioning from who we found ourselves to be and what we do to make ourselves into the people we want to be. Striving for stasis or attempting to keep things as they are is self-defeating. As one participant reported, change is inevitable and “When you have plans, God laughs.”
Dianne McCaughey, PhD
FAI Advisory Board Member