As we age, we become wiser. Or at least that the popular sentiment we tend to subscribe to in life as we look toward our elders for answers to our questions and solutions to some of life’s most complex problems.
But the question is do we become wiser with age, or does wisdom correlate with age in any way for that matter? Well, it depends on who you ask.
The point of contention appears to be more so the definition of wisdom than a clear correlation between social experience or the impact of age on thinking.
According to a study conducted by scientists at Yale University, elderly members of a study cohort consisting of more than 1,000 people did not do better than younger counterparts on a test of their understanding of human characteristics. In other words, how well could they understand social cues and read between the lines?
After examining the results and seeing what the highest scoring participants had in common, the results led researchers to postulate that the type of person you are has more to do with wisdom than the length of time you’ve been on Earth. Introverts and, in particular, those who have experienced melancholy tend to be more observant about people’s behavior and group dynamics.
A supporting analogy written by behavioral technologist Dr. Matt James for Huffington Post puts it in terms of life being a classroom. “Some students are avid learners of life and others not so much. The non-learners just enjoy the good times and cope with the bad times then keep moving forward. On the other hand, avid learners milk every experience for all the insight they can get out of it. These are the ones who gain wisdom.”
The question then is: what is wisdom? The dictionary defines it as the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Some psychologists have come to define it as the ability to maintain well-being and kindness in the face of challenges. Whichever one you choose, the next natural question would be then: does wisdom drive age, or vice versa?
There is no simple answer to this. Other studies suggest that at least some wisdom comes with age. An example published in the journal i-Perception examines the ability of participants of all age groups to estimate the slope of a hill, while also comparing the age groups to a population that has extensive experience estimating hill slope.
The results indicated that older participants’ (50 and up) life experiences had taught them to better gauge the slope of a hill than their younger counterparts, similar to those who were experienced at doing so. In the end, it’s a small example of how some knowledge better develops with age, but it shows that popular theory of wisdom coming with age has some validity to it, and that not all aspects of perception or aging can be measured in the same way.
The truth is, blanket statements to either effect simply aren’t true. Wisdom comes from a variety of sources, experiences and personality types. Whether or not it correlates with age is less important than being that “student of life.” Afterall, maintaining our desire to learn is good for our brains, and therefore, could very well help us to age gracefully.