For my 100th "Positive Aging" column, I wanted to address the subject of wisdom — a trait usually assumed to be a gift to compensate for the less pleasant side effect of the passing years. The problem, of course, is that most of us can't agree about what is (and isn't) wise.
This is where a remarkable woman named Dr. Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist, comes in. Back in the 1970s — actually, between 1976 and 1982 — when Clayton was a graduate student, she conducted extensive research regarding the characteristics of a wise person. One of the factors she discovered is that because older people have more information in their brain than younger ones, it takes longer to retrieve that data. So, essentially, when it comes to "cognitive performance" exams, younger people are faster. But older ones — no surprise here — possess far "greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences."
In her words, "Neither were the old always wise, nor the young lacking in wisdom." A corollary of her findings is that while intelligence represents a "nonsocial and impersonal" area of knowledge that can diminish in value over the course of a lifetime, wisdom represents an interpersonal and social type of knowledge about human nature that resists erosion and may actually increase with age.
I discovered Clayton's work while reading Pamela Druckerman's book "There Are No Grown-Ups," which chronicles the adult-based challenges she faced when she accepted turning 40. Here are several of Druckerman's — and other researchers' —observations about wisdom and those who have it:
—Wise people can see the big picture, but they know that their own judgment, knowledge and perspective are limited.
—They know that life is both ambiguous and complicated (they see nuances rather than black-and-white absolutes).
—They know that in any situation, multiple outcomes are possible (all actions have unforeseen consequences, and even good solutions have hidden transition costs).
—Wise people know themselves (this requires making a truthful assessment of one's own good and bad qualities).
—They are not, however, self-centered (it's essential to acknowledge other people's points of view, and to accept that they may have goals and values that differ from your own).
—Wise people are good at reading other individuals (this requires insight into how others think and might act in different situations).
—This knowledge of other people isn't merely academic (this ability comes from genuinely caring about other people, and having the ability to act out of compassion, empathy and generosity)
—Wise people are adaptable as well as pragmatic (they can roll with the punches when faced with life's uncertainties, and they have ability to change).
—Wise people know when to not act (understanding that sometimes the best option is to either do nothing or simply wait).
According to sociologist Monika Ardelt, becoming wise requires "motivation, determination, self-examination, self-reflection, and an openness to all kinds of experiences to do the necessary inner work." I can't think of a better goal for baby boomers than striving for wisdom while we watch our birthday cake candles accumulate.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.