Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lessons in How to Age With Wisdom

Septagram illustrating disciplines which compr...
Septagram illustrating disciplines which comprise cognitive science (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
BY PHYLLIS KORKKI


Since ancient times, the elusive concept of wisdom has figured prominently in philosophical and religious texts. The question remains compelling: What is wisdom, and how does it play out in individual lives?

Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuro psychologist in Orinda, California, developed a definition of wisdom in the 1970s that has served as a foundation for research on the subject ever since. After scouring ancient texts, she found that most people described as wise were decision makers. So she asked a group of law students, law professors and retired judges to name the characteristics of a wise person. She determined that wisdom consists of three key components: cognition, reflection and compassion.

Research shows that cognitive functioning slows as people age. But a recent study in Topics in Cognitive Science pointed out that older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones, and the quality of the information in the older brain is more nuanced.

According to Dr. Clayton, one must take time to gain insights and perspectives from one’s cognitive knowledge to be wise. Then one can use those insights to understand and help others.

Monika Ardelt, an associate professor at the University of Florida, felt a need to expand on studies of old age because of research showing that satisfaction late in life consists of things like maintaining physical and mental health, volunteering and having positive relationships with others. But this isn’t always possible. Wisdom, she has found, is what can help even severely impaired people find meaning, contentment and acceptance in life.

She developed a scale consisting of 39 questions aimed at measuring three dimensions of wisdom. People responding to statements on Professor Ardelt’s wisdom scale were not told they were being measured for wisdom. Respondents later answered question about hypothetical challenges, and those who showed evidence of high wisdom were also more likely to have better coping skills.

An impediment to wisdom is thinking, “I can’t stand who I am now because I’m not who I used to be,” said Isabella S. Bick, a psychotherapist who, at 81, still practices part time in Sharon, Connecticut. She has aging clients who are upset by a perceived worsening of their looks, sexual performance and abilities. For them, an acceptance of aging is necessary for growth, but “it’s not a resigned acceptance; it’s an embracing acceptance,” she said.

Professor Ardelt’s research shows that when people in nursing homes score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of well-being. “If things are really bad, it’s good to be wise,” she said.

Wisdom is characterized by a “reduction in self-centeredness,” Professor Ardelt said. Wise people try to understand situations from multiple perspectives, and they show tolerance as a result.

Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” said an important sign of wisdom was “generativity,” a term used by the psychologist Erick Erikson, who developed an influential theory on stages of the human life span. Generativity means giving back without needing anything in return, Dr.Goleman said.

He interviewed Mr. Erikson, along with his wife, Joan, in the late 1980s, when both were in their 80s. Mr. Erikson’s theory of human development had initially included eight stages, from infancy to old age. When the Eriksons themselves reached old age, though, they found a need to add a ninth stage of development, one in which wisdom plays a crucial role. “They depict an old age in which one has enough conviction in one’s own completeness to ward off the despair that gradual physical disintegration can too easily bring,” Dr.Goleman said.

“Even the simple activities of daily living may present difficulty and conflict,” Joan Erikson wrote in an expanded version of her husband’s book, “The Life Cycle Completed.”

The book adds: “One must join in the process of adaption. With whatever tact and wisdom we can muster, disabilities must be accepted with lightness and humor.”


Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, March 29, 2014

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