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Continued: Why older often means wiser

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  • Last update: March 19, 2014 - 2:03 PM

• Self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history.

• Understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute.

•An awareness of life’s ambiguities.

Wisdom in this sense is extremely rare, Staudinger said, and research has shown that it actually declines in the final decades. As a coping strategy, it’s better to be positive about life when you’re older, she said, and older people skew that way. They’re more likely to look back on their lives and say that the events that occurred were for the best, whereas a wise person would fully acknowledge mistakes and losses, and still try to improve.

True wisdom involves recognizing the negative both within and outside ourselves and trying to learn from it, she said.

Daniel Goleman, author of “Focus” and “Emotional Intelligence,” said, “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves,” or even on our group or organization.

He said an important sign of wisdom was “generativity,” a term used by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who developed an influential theory on stages of the human life span. Generativity means giving back without needing anything in return, Goleman said. The form of giving back could be creative, social, personal or financial, and “the wisest people do that in a way that doesn’t see their lifetime as limiting when this might happen,” he said.

Goleman interviewed Erikson, along with his wife, Joan, in the late 1980s, when both were in their 80s. 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,” Goleman wrote in the Times.

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  • Erik Erikson and his wife, Joan, at their home in 1988. Erikson, a social psychologist, found himself revising his influential theories about the eight distinct stages of human development to add an additional final stage in which the elderly use wisdom to ward off despair brought on by old age.

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