Knowledge is easy. With the internet, information is ubiquitous and cheap. But what about wisdom?
Scientists have a hard time even agreeing on its definition, but as the old saying goes, we all know it when we see it.
Not much on the subject is clear and the research doesn’t all line up but there’s a pattern emerging that’s curious and worth a look.
Get the image of gray beards out of your head: wisdom could be more about your youth than old age.
We don’t get wiser with age.
Even “gerontologically correct” psychologists have failed to find evidence of increasing wisdom with age. As part of the Berlin Wisdom Project, Paul Baltes and his colleagues conducted several studies exploring the relationship of wisdom to age, and they repeatedly failed to find any convincing evidence that wisdom, by their measures, increased much at all from the age of twenty to the age of ninety. It may be something we intuitively believe, but there’s no empirical data to support it; as Baltes and his colleague Uta Staudinger put it, “having lived longer in itself is not sufficient for acquiring more knowledge and judgment capacity in the wisdom domain.”
And research finds a broader pattern – many of the wisest people had pretty awful childhoods.
Aristotle had a speech impediment and was orphaned at an early age; Moses stuttered. Socrates was famously ugly. Pericles had a head so narrow and congenitally misshapen that Plutarch describeed it as a “deformity” and recounted that the comic poets of Athens took malicious glee in calling him “schinocephalos,” or “squill-head.” Gandhi lamented his frail boyhood body and a shyness so profound that other children laughed at his reticence. Confucius’s father died when he was three, and Abraham Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine. Siddhartha Gautamas mother died when he was seven days old, and even as a young adult, the future Buddha was virtually imprisoned by his own father, who was alarmed by a prophecy that his son would abandon both family and wealth in search of spiritual awakening.
Across the board, researchers have noticed a connection between wisdom and early adversity in life.
…some research has located the roots of wisdom as early as adolescence or early adulthood… wisdom often grew out of an exposure to adversity early in life. Many participants in the Berlin Aging Study who rated high on wisdom testing, according to coauthor Jacqui Smith, had lived through some of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous events as children and young adults…
Why would terrible things when you’re young make you a wiser person?
It teaches you how to deal with emotions.
Some theorists argue, however, that natural selection might care about cultivating a neural mechanism that could modulate and, in a sense, master the emotional experience of risk. Whether that mastery is partly acquired early in life, as the stress-inoculation research suggests, or later in life, as research by Carol Ryff and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin has found, the end result is an enhanced form of emotional regulation that would clearly confer adaptive power on anyone who possesses it.
Knowledge is merely collected information. whereas emotional intelligence is a key part of wisdom.
In his valedictory work on wisdom, Baltes attributed the acquisition of wisdom to a variety of factors—general intelligence and education, early exposure to meaningful mentors, cultural influences, and the lifelong accumulation of experience, which is the centerpiece of developmental psychology. But he, too, acknowledged the central importance of emotional intelligence, noting that “there is good reason to assume that people capable of effectively regulating emotional states associated with dilemmas of life by cognitive rather than affective-dysfunctional modes might have a better chance of being considered wise or scoring high on wisdom tasks.”
The Grant Study, which followed a group of males from youth to old age, saw that how the men learned to cope with their emotions was one of the key predictors of both wisdom and successful lives.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Grant Study is how the presence, or lack, of these “wise” defense mechanisms affected the lives of the Harvard men by the time they reached middle age. The men who exhibited “mature defenses,” Vaillant reported in 1977, were happier, more satisfied with their careers and marriages, and “were far better equipped to work and love” than their peers who possessed less mature adaptations. They earned better incomes, engaged in greater public service, had more rewarding friendships, suffered fewer problems in terms of physical and mental health, and were even much more comfortable being aggressive with others, compared to men with less mature coping skills.
Wisdom isn’t limited to those who suffer a terrible tragedy when they’re young.
But you also shouldn’t expect it to come just because you’ve had a lot of birthdays.
Lifelong learning is a part of both knowledge and wisdom.
But if we want to be wise when we are old we may need to spend less time today thinking about the world, and more time understanding how it makes us feel.
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