EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom and Successful Aging with Monika Ardelt

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The EBW Dispatches Series reports the latest developments from the frontline of wisdom research. Key findings are highlighted and illuminated – with a little help from the researchers themselves. The relevant papers can be found at the end of the dispatch.


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Wisdom and Successful Aging with Monika Ardelt

What good is wisdom anyway? Researchers are not convinced that wisdom necessarily leads to happiness, so why is it so highly prized? Wisdom researcher Monika Ardelt’s latest research on wisdom and hardship suggests an intriguing answer to this valid question. Wisdom may in fact be a resource to support that inevitable challenge that awaits us all – Aging and dying well.


Monika Ardelt is an Associate Professor of Sociology and pioneering wisdom researcher based at the University of Florida. She has worked in the field for over 20 years and is responsible for the widely used and much-respected 3D Wisdom Scale (full EBW Wisdom Profile here). Her research interests include wisdom, of course, but also ‘Aging Well and Dying Well.’ With this in mind, perhaps the titles of two of her most recently published papers, Wisdom at the End of Life and Wisdom and Hard Times should come as no surprise.

In fact, Ardelt very much views wisdom as an essential resource for navigating the process of aging and dying gracefully.


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Wisdom at the End of Life

Does Wisdom help older people feel better?


In the paper Wisdom at the End of Life: An Analysis of Mediating and Moderating Relations Between Wisdom and Subjective Well-Being (2015), Ardelt and Carladenise Edwards investigated the role wisdom might play in later life, in particular how it might have an impact on the subjective well-being (a measure of how well we feel) of older people. They were essentially asking the question ‘Does Wisdom help older people feel better?’ The study looked at two groups of seniors –41 people who were either hospice patients or lived in a nursing home, and 156 people still living in the community.

Study highlights suggested that:

For older people, greater wisdom was associated with greater subjective well-being. This means that, in later life, wisdom did make people feel better about their situation.

For hospice patients or people living in nursing homes, wisdom had a stronger effect on well-being than it did for the relatively healthy community residents. This means that, for those in more challenging circumstances, wisdom was even more important in helping them feel good about their situation.

This second point is particularly interesting. Ardelt explains the finding in the following way: ‘It is easy to feel well if people are healthy, are part of a community of supportive relatives and friends, and have enough resources to engage in recreational activities, go out to eat, travel, and are able to do other things that make life enjoyable. It is much more difficult to be satisfied with life if one is confined to a nursing home due to physical disability or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live’


It is easy to feel well if people are healthy, are part of a community of supportive relatives and friends, and have enough resources to engage in recreational activities, go out to eat, travel, and are able to do other things that make life enjoyable. It is much more difficult to be satisfied with life if one is confined to a nursing home due to physical disability or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live.


So the first paper suggests that wisdom does indeed help older people feel better, particularly for those who are in objectively challenging circumstances.


Wisdom and Hard Times

Can wisdom reduce the impact of tough times?


In the paper Wisdom and Hard Times: The Ameliorating Effect of Wisdom on the Negative Association Between Adverse Life Events and Well-Being (2016), Ardelt and her colleague neuroscientist Dilip Jeste explored the relationship between wisdom and hardship. Typically, as we get older, the going gets tougher. As well as managing greater physical challenges, our social lives can shrink, leading to an overall reduction in how well we feel we are, or our ‘subjective well-being.’ In their study, Ardelt and Jeste studied the wisdom, adverse life events and well-being of 994 adults aged 51-99 years old. They were asking the question ‘Can wisdom reduce the impact of tough times?’

Some highlights of the study were:

Greater wisdom weakened the impact that adverse events had on people’s subjective well-being. This means that the wiser the person, the less effect hard times had on how well they felt.

Ardelt’s wisdom assessment measure, the 3DWS actually has 3 components – cognitive, compassionate and reflective. The research suggested that the reflective component of wisdom was primarily responsible for both the association between wisdom and subjective well-being, and the reduction of the impact of adverse life events on subjective well-being.

Ardelt proposed a possible explanation of the dominance of the reflective component of wisdom in helping reduce negative impact during tough times. ‘The reflective dimension of wisdom allows individuals to perceive phenomena and events from different perspectives, enabling them to look at adverse life events from a more detached perspective, which might help them to stay calm and emotionally balanced in times of stress and adversity. This, in turn, contributes to the maintenance of subjective well-being, even during hard times.’


The reflective dimension of wisdom allows individuals to perceive phenomena and events from different perspectives, enabling them to look at adverse life events from a more detached perspective, which might help them to stay calm and emotionally balanced in times of stress and adversity. This, in turn, contributes to the maintenance of subjective well-being, even during hard times.


So, the second paper suggests that the reflective dimension of wisdom in particular can serve to protect our subjective well-being during tough times.


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These two papers shine a spotlight on the role wisdom can play during challenging periods. Why do we seek wisdom? The research suggests that we do so to help us navigate hardship. And one challenging period we all have to navigate is the adventure of growing old.

Ardelt suggests that wisdom is a resource for navigating tough times: ‘Wisdom becomes particularly valuable in times of crises and hardships when external means to increase well-being are considerably reduced. Wise people know how to be content even if objective circumstances are less than ideal by being accepting of what is and grateful for the good things they still have, such as the love of family and friends.’


Wisdom becomes particularly valuable in times of crises and hardships when external means to increase well-being are considerably reduced. Wise people know how to be content even if objective circumstances are less than ideal by being accepting of what is and grateful for the good things they still have, such as the love of family and friends.


So if wisdom is so such a valuable psychological resource in challenging times, and old age in particular, what can people do to foster this capacity? Ardelt was able to offer some practical advice on how we might start nurturing this resource in preparation for the road ahead. ‘Learning from life experiences and adversity seems to foster the development of wisdom. However, this is easier if one engages in a praxis that strengthens the reflective wisdom dimension, such as mindfulness meditation. Evidence shows that meditation is positively related to three-dimensional wisdom and that advanced practitioners of meditation tend to score higher on wisdom than novices.’


Learning from life experiences and adversity seems to foster the development of wisdom. However, this is easier if one engages in a praxis that strengthens the reflective wisdom dimension, such as mindfulness meditation. Evidence shows that meditation is positively related to three-dimensional wisdom and that advanced practitioners of meditation tend to score higher on wisdom than novices.


The two papers discussed in this dispatch are available below, so click to read the original research:

Wisdom at the End of Life: An Analysis of Mediating and Moderating Relations Between Wisdom and Subjective Well-Being (Ardelt and Edwards, 2015)

Wisdom and Hard Times: The Ameliorating Effect of Wisdom on the Negative Association Between Adverse Life Events and Well-Being (Ardelt & Jeste, 2016)


Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about Monika Ardelt’s work:

EBW Wisdom Profile – Monika Ardelt – In this recent profile, Ardelt spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about her experiences in the field of Wisdom Research, and the growth of the field itself. She also talked about the role of wisdom in ageing and dying well and discussed the possible role meditation might play in the development of wisdom.

Conversations on Wisdom University of Chicago – Video interview with Wisdom Researcher Monika Ardelt – Here Ardelt outlines her much-celebrated three-dimensional wisdom scale

EBW Post: 3-DIMENSIONAL WISDOM: Can wisdom be measured? – In this post, some of the challenges associated with measuring wisdom are considered and the development of Ardelt’s 3-Dimensional Wisdom Scale is discussed in further detail.


If you have any thoughts about the dispatch, please get in touch.

You can contact me at charles@evidencebasedwisdom.com, via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.

Charles

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