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Researchers find that wisdom and happiness increase as people grow older

Carolyn Miller Parr
Carolyn Miller Parr (Unknown - Joshua Tapper/News 21)
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By Josh Tapper
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

With 14 siblings screaming at one another, mediator Carolyn Miller Parr threatened to summon a security guard at D.C. Superior Court. That lowered the temperature in the room.

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When the family returned for a second session, disagreements escalated again. This time Parr took a gentler approach, coaxing the siblings to put their mother's interests above their own squabbling. They settled the dispute that day.

"I used to very quickly choose sides," says Parr, who's 73 and co-founder of Beyond Dispute Associates, a mediation and arbitration practice. Now, she says, "I'm much less judgmental of people."

By reappraising the situation and adjusting her emotional response, Parr illustrates -- and scientists are coming to accept -- the way wisdom actually does increase with age.

Contrary to largely gloomy cultural perceptions, growing old brings some benefits, notably emotional and cognitive stability. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the "well-being paradox." Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

That may help explain the finding that old age correlates with happiness. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found a U-shaped relationship between happiness and age: Adults were happiest in youth and again in their 70s and early 80s, and least happy in middle age. A 2007 University of Chicago study similarly concluded that rates of happiness -- "the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life positively" -- crept upward from age 65 to 85 and beyond, in both sexes.

Wisdom appears to follow a similar trajectory and not only because raising a family, navigating a career and experiencing love, loss, success and failure all educate older adults.

Researchers caution that life experience is "a necessary but not sufficient precondition for wisdom," says Judith Gluck, a psychologist working with the University of Chicago's Defining Wisdom project. "People who are observant, empathetic and reflective may learn a lot from experiences that others around them encounter," she says, "even if they are not directly involved themselves."

What constitutes wisdom? Ipsit Vahia, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego, says it "involves making decisions that would be to the greater benefit of a larger number of people" and maintaining "an element of pragmatism, not pure idealism. And it would involve some sense of reflection and self-understanding."

These qualities appear age-related. A recent University of Michigan study on aging and social reasoning tested people in three age groups, the oldest being 60 and older. Presented with a fictional geopolitical conflict, participants specified what they thought would happen and why. Igor Grossman, a social psychologist and lead researcher on the study, and his team sorted the answers into six categories of "wisdom-related thinking," including searching for compromise, admitting uncertainty and finding flexibility. The oldest group earned the highest wisdom score in each category.

"Wisdom is the ability to navigate the important challenges of social life," Grossman says.

Whether this development comes from neurobiological or emotional sources is a matter of some debate. If the older brain becomes hard-wired for wise decision-making, science has yet to document that change. An MRI scan cannot isolate a part of the brain associated with wisdom, says Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist and author of "The Wisdom Paradox." Still, he says, the aging brain has a greater sense of "pattern recognition," the ability to capture a range of similar but nonidentical information, then extract and piece together common features. That, Goldberg says, "gives some old people a cognitive leg up."

Others investigating the benefits of old age are more likely to point to social or emotional factors, such as the ability to better regulate emotions, as the underpinning for wiser behavior.

"I never lose control," says John W. McDonald, who at 88 continues to work in international conflict resolution as chair of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy in Rosslyn. "If you want to do a good job, you have to learn how to control your emotions."

Older adults have an advantage there. In a 2007 study , Blanchard-Fields and Susanne Scheibe screened a disturbing video for two groups of adults, ages 20 to 30 and 60 to 75. They recorded the participants' emotional responses to the scene (of a disgusting meal), then asked some volunteers in each age group to shake off the negative imagery and play a memory game. People in the older age group performed better on the memory test.

Carstensen credits this response to something called "socioemotional selectivity theory," a focus on positive emotional goals in late life. The elderly better tailor their social interactions to increase their well-being; researchers theorize that, as a result, they make thoughtful, "wise" decisions.

"Old people are good at shaping everyday life to suit their needs," explains Scheibe. By carefully pruning their social networks or looking at life in relative terms, older adults maintain cognitive control. And although multiple chronic illnesses that cause functional disability or cognitive decline can affect well-being, most older adults are able to tune out negative information into their late 70s and 80s.

"As people age, they don't have large futures," adds Susan Turk Charles, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine. "Time left in life makes you know what bothers you and what you need to avoid."

Despite their intriguing findings, however, researchers still have an imperfect understanding of wisdom. "One man's wisdom might not be another man's wisdom," Vahia says.

The next phase of research, he and Grossman say, examines whether wisdom can be fostered or heightened. If older adults are predisposed to wisdom, perhaps a graying population means a wiser one.

Parr, meanwhile, is satisfied with her definition of wisdom. "At first you think wisdom is knowing the answers," the mediator says. "And then, as you get a little older and make a few mistakes in your life, you find out that wisdom is asking questions -- and listening to the answers that you hear from other people."

Tapper is a fellow of News21. News21 associate Mary Plummer contributed to this report.


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