The science of wisdom and old age

Drawing of man patting a box labelled "wisdom" and saying "DONE". An old woman on the left is thinking, "Really?"
Is wisdom a personality trait, a stage of development or an occasional lucky insight?

What’s wisdom? Psychologists, social scientists, philosophers and life coaches talk about wisdom quite a lot. So do experts on aging. Some see wisdom as a natural outcome of maturity, though not a prerequisite. Plenty of people see the cultivation of wisdom and the sharing of wisdom as a central developmental task of humans as we grow old. Wisdom is often conflated with particular beliefs or values. Some see it as a personality trait. Some see it as a spiritual path.

I’m (obviously) not qualified in any relevant academic discipline. And if I were a life coach, I wouldn’t dare claim to help others to achieve wisdom. But something about the idea of wisdom being analysed in this way niggles at me, so I’m raising it for your consideration.

Wisdom requires life experience

Here are a couple of definitions. Do they chime with what you think?

  • Wisdom is the ability to use your experience and knowledge in order to make sensible decisions or judgments ~ Collins dictionary
  • Wisdom, sapience, or sagacity is the ability to contemplate and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is associated with attributes such as unbiased judgment, compassion, experiential self-knowledge, self-transcendence and non-attachment, and virtues such as ethics and benevolence ~ Wikipedia

Here’s an article about Wisdom in Psychology Today

The science of wisdom is a thing now

Institutions, think tanks and conferences are considering how to deconstruct and reconstruct and bottle wisdom as an objective, measurable quality or even a personality factor. If you would like to explore this idea as something more substantial than my bumper-sticker level of understanding, the links below will give you a starting point. There’s fun here too: it’s an interesting new field to explore if you stop asking yourself what the point is. At the very least, you may stop and ask yourself what you mean when you use the word wisdom — and surprise yourself.

Facts, opinions, prejudices, history, mythology, speculation, and advice proliferate around the old concept of wisdom. They’re lurking in the background of my poem, The wisdom of folly.

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17 thoughts on “The science of wisdom and old age

  1. Cathy Cade says:

    The ability to learn from experience.
    It isn’t a given. I’m sure we all know people who have reached a grand old age with oodles of experience and don’t seem to have learned a thing.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sometimes I count myself among them

      1. Cathy Cade says:

        Surely not…

  2. I remember when I was a kid my dad trying to explain the difference between being smart and being wise. It took me all these years later to understand what he was getting at!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Good things take time. But wait! That’s the point, I think.

  3. haoyando says:

    Now I think of it, wisdom is quite scientific.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You will find corroborating evidence out there.

  4. I’ve probably been very wise throughout my life – mostly after the event!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:


  5. I loved your poem, The Wisdom of Folly.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’m so glad. These thoughts fly by and only a few get shared, let alone appreciated.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I think one important aspect of wisdom is taking time. Time to contemplate a situation. Time to consider a response. Wisdom never seems to be in a rush.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well said! I never thought that thought, but I agree

  7. I have had teenage students impress me with their wisdom. And, once, when I was in a stressed-out flap with too many jobs to do, my eight-year-old nephew said calmly: “One thing at a time”. I’ve never forgotten that and repeat it to myself often.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So adorable. He cared and he knew what to say.

  8. auntyuta says:

    Thanks for all the links, Rachel. I think, it would be interesting to find out what people think, who have properly studied this subject.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Enjoy the investigation!

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