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Associate Professor of Sociology Monika Ardelt
On Wisdom and culture, the role of meditation, and ageing and dying well
Monika Ardelt is an Associate Professor of Sociology at The University of Florida. Her research interests include Adult Human Development and Ageing and Dying well. For the last 25 years or so, she has been at the cutting edge of Wisdom Research. Professor Ardelt is responsible for the development of the highly respected and widely used Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale, which you can try for yourself by clicking here. She 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.
On the Development of the Three Dimensional Wisdom Scale
On Wisdom and Culture
On The Growth of Wisdom Research
On Overcoming Technical Challenges in Measuring Wisdom
On Meditation as a Tool for Developing Wisdom
On Wisdom and Happiness
On Ageing and Dying Well
On Making a Wiser Society
On the Development of the Three Dimensional Wisdom Scale
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Can you tell us how you became interested in wisdom in the first place?
This goes back to my dissertation research, actually. I was interested in Life Course research and I was studying with Glen Elder who was the Godfather of Life Course research and I wanted to know what predicts successful ageing from a life course perspective. I am a sociologist and, as a sociologist, we typically look at the objective life conditions of people in old age to predict successful ageing. So, for example, health, in particular subjective health, matters a lot. Social relationships in old age, financial situation, living conditions, you know, all of this, but it wasn’t quite satisfying for me. First of all, it doesn’t explain all of the variation in life satisfaction. The other thing I wanted to know was, could the life course matter, so in other words, what you have learned over the life course? This got me more into the psychological realm. So I was playing around with a couple of concepts. One of my professors in Germany, because I was studying first in Germany, he suggested, ‘Well, how about ‘autonomy’?’ Now autonomy is, of course, one of the first things that actually goes in old age, once you get really older and health declines. Mental health and physical health declines and autonomy shrinks. Then I was playing around with ‘coping’. ‘Coping’ is not a bad concept, you know, having learned how to cope with life. Then I was just thinking about this and then I said ‘Well, it’s something like ‘Wisdom’, and I said, ‘This makes sense to me. Somebody who has become wise over the years would have an easier time to age well because, kind of related to coping, they know how to deal with the vicissitudes of life.’ But then I said ‘Okay, but how do you measure this? There’s no way to measure this!’ I had to go the library to pick up this book related to the data that I was going to use and right next to it was the book by Sternberg that had just come out ‘Wisdom: Its nature, origins and development’ and I was like, ‘Wow! There are actually people who have studied this’. I had no idea. So of course I got the book, and I read it, and I was as confused at the end as when I started, because everybody defined wisdom in a different way. It was all over the place, but a lot of people referred back to this chapter by Clayton and Birren that they wrote in the 1980s, 10 years earlier. So I got the chapter and they had defined wisdom. They had done this multidimensional scaling analysis where they asked people of different age groups ‘What do you think are characteristics of wisdom?’ and then they gave it to another group of people of different age groups and they asked ‘How much are these characteristics of a wise person, of myself, of an older person?’ and so on, and they came up with those three dimensions – cognitive, reflective and the affective dimension of wisdom, and I said ‘Wow! This makes so much sense to me! Maybe you cannot measure wisdom per se directly, but it should be possible to measure the three dimensions of wisdom this way.’ So I was looking at the data that I had at this point, and they had the California Q-sort and they had the Haan’s Ego rating scale and I said ‘Okay, let me try and see if I can actually measure the three dimensions of wisdom in this way, by picking items that would fit those definitions.’ I tried it and it worked, you know, and this is how I started. And indeed it was positively related to successful ageing.
Maybe you cannot measure wisdom per se directly, but it should be possible to measure the three dimensions of wisdom this way
So you worked out that, even though perhaps you couldn’t directly measure wisdom, if people were in agreement that there were these three dimensions to it, which could be measured, then you’re measuring a proxy for wisdom?
Yes. I mean not everybody is in agreement, but it was a good starting point for me and it was a way of actually getting to wisdom, to measure wisdom. There are other definitions of wisdom out there, as you know, and people have measured it in different ways. It just made sense to me, and I had the data. I could actually try it out, and it just worked. It worked very well. Then later on, when I got my PhD and I got my job at the University of Florida, one of my faculty mentors said ‘You should come up with a scale that actually measures those three dimensions’. And I said ‘Hmmm – that is a good idea!’ I had a couple of undergraduate students and we went through all kinds of existing measures to pick out items which could capture those three dimensions. We put them in the three dimensions and then we tested it on about 200 people. Starting from 140 items, I then picked the 39 items that now make up the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale. It has actually behaved quite nicely, at least in a Western, North American, European context. Now, if you go to other places, I think the jury is still out on that one!
On Wisdom and Culture
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Is that something that’s been done yet, using your scale in Eastern cultures perhaps?
Yes, we have. We’ve tried it in India, China, and in Korea. It’s also been tried in Iran and Slovakia. Sometimes you have to take out some of the items. Some items just don’t work and that’s fine with me. But when we did it, we had about 100 people in China and India and in Serbia, and it didn’t work the same in each country. So, if you wanted to take out items, they were not the same items. And I said, ‘Well, it’s a hundred people. I don’t want to change the scale completely based on a hundred people’ and so that’s why I’m saying the jury’s still out on this. Now, Michael Thomas, Katherine Bangen, Dilip Jeste and myself have actually consolidated the 39 items down to 12 items, so now there’s an abbreviated scale . I was a little bit sceptical at first – ‘Can you really do that?‘ but actually, it works pretty well.
You’ve already compressed it down from 140 odd so down to 39…?
Exactly! But the 12 work interestingly quite well. Again, these have to be shown to work in other contexts. Also, it doesn’t work if you want to look at the individual dimensions, but it works surprisingly well. As I said, the jury is still out in some other contexts. It worked in Iran. It had high alphas, but then in other places it didn’t. If you picked out different items it worked, but it wasn’t the same items it each country, right? This is why we’re still working on that one.
I love the idea that there could be a scale that might be consistent across cultures. That’s quite a noble aim!
Yes. And I definitely like that too, and I’m happy to take some of the items out if they don’t work across cultures, but what hasn’t convinced me is that some of the items that don’t work in one culture do work perfectly well in another culture, so you would take these items out. However, if you take them out for that culture, then the scale doesn’t work in the first culture anymore! That’s why we haven’t completely figured this out. It’s also not clear to me if this is a translation problem. Sometimes I have people ask ‘Can I translate the scale?’ I say ‘Absolutely. Can you send me the translation you make?’ Then someone else later says ‘Can I translate the scale?’ and I say ‘I already have a translation. Look at this,’ and they look at it and they say ‘Err this isn’t really a good translation.’ So I say ‘Okay. Improve on it!’ I haven’t directed this. This is just happening.
It’s very exciting though. I love that idea. I suppose that it would suggest, if it can be done, that wisdom is something which can be extracted completely from cultural context. It seems like it couldn’t be completely extracted from the culture.
Well, it was interesting when we did this in Iran. It was kind of a basic study. We took out two items from the scale that really didn’t work, but that’s fine. We still had 37 items and the other ones worked pretty well. We then gave them to people in Iran from three different age groups and different educational backgrounds.What came out in terms of age and gender was that for the men, you have these increasing higher wisdom scores for the older age groups, particularly driven by the reflective and compassionate wisdom dimensions (which is what I used to call the ‘affective’ dimension but I now call the ‘compassionate’ dimension). That makes sense, right? There is a developmental perspective that, the older you get, the more reflective and compassionate you become. Among the women, the younger ones had higher scores on the cognitive dimension than the older age group. For the compassionate dimension, both older men and women were the same, both scoring highly in compassion. This is where you get into culture. Of course it was in part explained by education. But for the older women in Iran, it was much more part of their society not to question things, whereas for the younger women, they’re actually quite modern and emancipated.
So not only is it culture-dependent, but the cultures themselves are changing across generations at the same time, so there are lots of moving parts.
Exactly. There was some discussion ‘Was it wise for older women not to question authority and this was why they had lower cognitive scores, or does a certain openness in society allow for a questioning of authority and allow for personal growth?’
There was some discussion ‘Was it wise for older women not to question authority and this was why they had lower cognitive scores, or does a certain openness in society allow for a questioning of authority and allow for personal growth?’
I have read that in certain Eastern cultures, discretion is considered a wise characteristic, so if it was considered indiscreet to speak out of turn, that might reduce your apparent cognitive score, perhaps?
Well the cognitive score is measuring the desire to know the truth and part of it is ‘wanting to know for yourself’ rather than leave this up to authority. The other part is to see the grey rather than the black and white. All the items in the cognitive items actually measure the absence of wisdom because the positively worded items didn’t work for some reason. So the tendency to see beyond black or white is wisdom and to know what to do even if the situation is ambiguous. It is an interesting question, right? What society would provide a good fertile ground for wisdom development?
On The Growth of Wisdom Research
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You’ve been working in this field for a long time. Do you have a sense that it has been gaining more interest over the last five or ten years?
Absolutely. No question about it. When I started out, and this was in 1990 that I came across this book, when I was working on my dissertation and I got my committee together, one of my committee members said ‘How did you ever come up with this w-w-w-wisdom topic?’ They couldn’t even say it! And when people asked me, ‘What’s your dissertation about?’ and I’d say ‘Err, I’m studying, err, wisdom’. It was kind of embarrassing. If I had said ‘Hey, I’m studying pornography!’…
That would be fine. Anything but wisdom!
Yes! It was seen as a little bit ‘new-agey.’ It wasn’t really taken very seriously by some people; I wouldn’t say everybody. Some people were impressed, but it was definitely fringe. And now I’m not embarrassed anymore! I can talk about it. It’s out there. There are a lot of publications. People are interested. People have now studied wisdom in lawyers, in the judicial branch. Wisdom in business is really up and coming. Wisdom in management – people are really interested in that. It’s surprising. Wisdom in education is coming, and I think it’s kind of parallel to the mindfulness movement. That has really gained acceptance. Some people say it’s a fad, but it’s kind of parallel. There’s one study that just came out from the University of Chicago. They did a study where they actually looked at meditation using my wisdom scale. They compared it to ballet dancers and there were two other movement-based types. One was Feldenkrais, which I really don’t know about, and some other movement type. The ballet dancers were lower than the other types in terms of the wisdom score, but I was also very pleased to see that, those that had more experience in meditation tended to have higher wisdom scores. So there was a relationship between the amount of experience and the wisdom scores. That wasn’t the truest with the Feldenkrais and the other one, but it was also true for ballet and that I don’t know why.
It’s out there. There are a lot of publications. People are interested. People have now studied wisdom in lawyers, in the judicial branch. Wisdom in business is really up and coming. Wisdom in management – people are really interested in that. It’s surprising. Wisdom in education is coming, and I think it’s kind of parallel to the mindfulness movement. That has really gained acceptance.
Meditation is something you’re quite into yourself, so you’re probably quite pleased to see that result.
Yes. I was actually quite pleased indeed to see that.
Have they done a before-and-after 6-week trial?
No they haven’t at all. It wasn’t an intervention. I think it was an online survey, looking for practitioners of these four methods and then they were just asked ‘How many years have you meditated or done this practice for?’ and ‘How intensely are you doing it?’ ending up with the number of years and then giving them the wisdom scale questions and I think they have some control variables there. So it was not an intervention at all. At the University of Chicago’s Wisdom forum last year, there was one person who said ‘Well we did a meditation intervention and the wisdom score didn’t increase after a week.’ Well you know, it might not go that quickly! It has to be more intense than a week of intervention. After all, we’re talking about wisdom here. It would make more sense to really do a longitudinal study, which I don’t think has been done.
You would have thought there would be enough interest now to try something like that, especially with the interest in both those areas of wisdom and mindfulness meditation.
I know. I know. We need to study wisdom longitudinally, because it would be really interesting to see under which conditions wisdom grows or not, right? There are some longitudinal studies out there but most of them are cross-sectional.
And of course it could work the other way round, I suppose: people that are wise might be drawn to the practice of having some quiet time for reflection.
Yes. Absolutely. That’s why this is tricky. We did a study a couple of years ago, which hasn’t been published yet, asking ‘Can psychosocial growth be taught in university courses?’ We have a Centre for Spirituality and Health and we are trying to teach classes that further psychosocial growth. We did a before-and-after test. And yes – there was a certain movement in the direction of being wiser in the classes that we taught, whereas in the control classes, wisdom actually decreased!
We did a before-and-after test. And yes – there was a certain movement in the direction of being wiser in the classes that we taught, whereas in the control classes, wisdom actually decreased!
That was a before-and-after, so that’s encouraging.
It is really encouraging. Exactly. So I think there is something that you can do. This needs to be published. I am overwhelmed. There are always more things to do that I need to do, than time to actually do them!
That’s good, I guess, because that’s a reflection of the growth of the field.
Yes. It’s good. Absolutely. You know, sometimes my colleagues say ‘I am burnt dry. I don’t know what I should study next.’ I don’t have this problem!
On Overcoming Technical Challenges in Measuring Wisdom
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When I talk to people and say that I’m looking at the science of wisdom, people often come up with lots of reasons why it’s hard to study it. Having spent a number of years in the field, what do you think are the main challenges in studying wisdom? Obviously there are the problems of social desirability, self delusion, all these kind of things. How can you get round those kinds of problems?
First of all, let me say, in some ways, the criticism is overblown, I think. I have done face-to-face interviews with older adults and I was surprised how honest people seem to be. They seem to have no qualms about giving you an answer that seems socially undesirable, quite frankly. Of course, there is a certain direction, if you look at the wisdom scores, the way I’ve measured it is from 1 to 5 and the mean is not a 3, right. The mean is a 3.5 or 3.6, something like that, so there is a little movement into the ‘yes I’m like that’, but it’s not a mean of ‘4.something’ which you sometimes have when you get other scales like ‘purpose in life’. It’s harder for people to say ‘No, there’s no purpose in my life!’ Or Depression scales, quite frankly. If you look at depressive symptoms, a lot of people say ‘No, no, no’. It’s much harder for them to actually admit that they’re depressed or that they have depressive symptoms. So I think quite frankly it’s overblown. If you look at social desirability bias scales, there is a certain kind of correlation. Interestingly, it kind of balances out – the cognitive dimension is negatively related and the other two are more positively related. Webster’s criticising my scale because there’s a social desirability bias, and there is a certain correlation of social desirability, but it’s in the 0.2 range. Well 0.2, I mean! With the compassionate dimension you do get more of a social desirability, you’re supposed to be compassionate.
I have done face-to-face interviews with older adults and I was surprised how honest people seem to be. They seem to have no qualms about giving you an answer that seems socially undesirable
You can’t say you’re not compassionate.
Exactly, and it has a couple of more positively worded items. This is what Judith Glück and I were discussing. How do you get around it? In some ways I got around it by using a lot of negatively worded items, so that it measures the absence of wisdom in fact. In this way, people get a little bit more confused because, if they are wise, they have to say ‘No. I disagree with those items’. And that’s a little bit different, because people like to agree.
You don’t have to think about it.
Exactly. You really have to think about it, because people like to agree, and to say ‘No!’ to an item, that already goes a little bit against social desirability. If you only have positively-worded items, it’s a little bit harder to get this. That’s one of the reasons I ended up with a lot of negatively worded items, because the positively worded items didn’t have a lot of variation. A lot of people just said ‘Yes. Sounds good!’ You had nobody disagreeing with them.
All of the problems that we’ve been discussing could relate to lots of different psychological traits, but what about this aspect of wisdom that, people that are wiser may well know how far they are from wisdom, whereas the people that are fools might think they’re wise.
Yes. I think that is a valid criticism in some ways. The idea that you can fool yourself, not that people are lying, but that you fool yourself into thinking that you are better than you actually are, but the wise person knows themselves better, right?
So wise people could report themselves as less wise than foolish people.
This way they would report themselves more honestly. Right, okay. I would answer to that, you might just go with the 4s rather than the 5s. If you look at answers such as ‘strongly agree’, you could still just tick ‘agree’ Or for other worded items, ‘definitely true of myself’/‘not true of myself’, you could tick ‘somewhat true of myself’ or ‘hardly true of myself’. So the wise person might not go to the extreme, because they know they don’t to it all the time. They might not say ‘definitely true of myself’, but they might say ‘ mostly true of myself’
So they’re not going to go the opposite end of the scale, but they might modify their choice downwards.
Exactly. I don’t think that someone who really strives for that would go to the other direction and say ‘No – this is just not true of myself’. So again, I’m not too worried about it in this regard. That’s why I like mixed methods. In the end what you have to do, of course, is pick out the people who are coming out high on the scale and those that are coming out low on the scale, and then look at how these people are different. What characterises people who are really high on the scale, and what distinguishes them from people really low on the scale? Then you have some qualitative interviews, as I did when looking at how wise people cope with crises and obstacles in life and how not-so-wise people do it, and there is indeed a difference! That kind of gives you some confidence that you are getting at something. Now, is there measurement error? Sure. This is not perfect. This is not an objective yardstick we have – your height or weight – but that’s true for all psychological measures, not just the wisdom measures
The only element of what we are talking about that I thought applied specifically to wisdom more than any other trait was this problem of wise people being more humble. If you are being asked to rate essentially how wise you are, that’s a problem, but that wouldn’t necessarily apply to quite a lot of other traits. But all the social desirability issues I see would apply to many traits.
I’m not so sure about that either. I was just working with the resilience scales, you know, ‘I am able to bounce back when bad things happen’ or mastery, ‘I feel I am in control’. You can fool yourself in the same way. But, in the end, what matters? Does it matter that you think you are in control, or that you actually are in control?! The jury is still out on this. This is the same with objective and subjective health. It turns out that subjective health is a better predictor for survival and a lot of other things, than objective health.
Does it matter that you think you are in control, or that you actually are in control?! The jury is still out on this. This is the same with objective and subjective health. It turns out that subjective health is a better predictor for survival and a lot of other things, than objective health.
I also heard recently that the fear of stress is a bigger killer than stress itself?
Right, right. Perceived stress. If you see a lot of stress, that might actually be worse than if you actually have the stress, and that goes of course with coping with stress and this kind of thing. So, all scales have this problem and I don’t see it as particularly different for the wisdom scale. This is why in the end we need, a kind of a mixed method approach, ideally. This is what Judith (Glück) was saying at the Wisdom Forum. Ideally you need to follow these people round and see what they’re doing.
That’s expensive, I guess, but that’s the gold standard.
But they did!
Yes. They identified people that were scoring highly on the wisdom measures and then spent a few days following these high scorers in their day-to-day lives.
Exactly, and that’s the fascinating part (click here to watch Judith Glück discuss this study at the University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research Forum in 2015).
On Meditation as a Tool for Developing Wisdom
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Linking back to the earlier discussion about meditation, I’ve seen in your work that trauma, for example, is something that tends to give people a new perspective on life, and that can lead to a greater wisdom score. Have any practices been shown in the lab to lead to a sustained increase in peoples’ level of wisdom?
I go with meditation, quite frankly. I don’t think that’s the only thing. It would be interesting to check out yoga and other kinds of things, but this is what Pascual-Leone says exactly: You have those two pathways to wisdom – one is meditation, the others are these ultimate-limit situations, crises in life, but I think it also goes together. I would actually add, it’s not just the ultimate-limit situations, these really heavy crises in life. It’s everyday life, you know. Everyday life can help you to grow a little bit wiser if you know how to deal with those everyday irritations. That goes back to The Buddha. He says ‘Life is suffering’ because things happen that you don’t like, and things that you want do not happen. We are confronted with that constantly and I think one way that wise people are better able to handle these situations is by not being disturbed by it – not getting riled up if things happen that they don’t like, or if things do not happen that they would like to happen. They are better able to handle the ups and downs of life. But how do you learn that? And I think meditation really helps.
Pascual-Leone says exactly: You have those two pathways to wisdom – one is meditation, the others are these ultimate-limit situations, crises in life, but I think it also goes together. I would actually add, it’s not just the ultimate-limit situations, these really heavy crises in life. It’s everyday life, you know. Everyday life can help you to grow a little bit wiser if you know how to deal with those everyday irritations.
So a big study needs to be done on it, doesn’t it?
Yes. It would be really nice to do a big study on this. At one point, we were trying to get some funding for it and didn’t happen, and now I’m busy with other stuff, but eventually it would indeed be very nice to look at this. Does it help? Then again you can also say some people might be, personality-wise, better able to deal with these ups and downs of life. One of the things on personality, for example, that has been shown is ‘openness to experience’ has a relationship to wisdom, measured in different ways, in fact. But, and that’s my thing with personality, psychologists, at least some psychologists, still think that personality is what you’re born with and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is great for the people who are low on neuroticism and high on the other ones, but it’s not so great for people who have the opposite characteristics! And again, I think meditation probably gives the chance to change that, to become less neurotic, decrease neuroticism and increase agreeableness and conscientiousness and openness to experience, and so in these things, yes, I think it would be really interesting to do a long-term study on meditation. The problem is that, as you were saying, there is a selection bias. People with certain personality characteristics, or with a desire to grow, are drawn to meditation, so you need to do a kind of a wait list design so that you get the same kind of people.
One of the things on personality, for example, that has been shown is ‘openness to experience’ has a relationship to wisdom
I like this idea that it’s not only life-changing trauma that you can learn from, but rather any sort of little challenge. Traffic or burning your tongue gives you the opportunity to develop some sort of acceptance.
That’s exactly right.
And I suppose meditation trains you to do that.
Exactly. That’s the whole point.
It seems that it would work but it would be great to actually have the data.
Yes exactly. But that’s the premise of meditation. You spend some time with yourself, so you can deal with what happens during the time that you meditate. Then, when you go out into the world and something like this happens, you do not get out of balance, but you stay in this equanimity. Of course, it’s not easy to do at all. That’s why you need the training! Meditation as a regular thing.
That’s the premise of meditation. You spend some time with yourself, so you can deal with what happens during the time that you meditate. Then, when you go out into the world and something like this happens, you do not get out of balance, but you stay in this equanimity. Of course, it’s not easy to do at all. That’s why you need the training!
On Wisdom and Happiness
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I wanted to talk about the ‘Wisdom and Happiness’ debate. I read your ‘Self-reported Wisdom and Happiness’ paper. It seems to be quite a controversial topic. There is a perspective promoting an ‘Ignorance is bliss’ stance, which suggests that some level of self-delusion protects us from the reality of our own failings and can keep us happy and cheerful. Furthermore, that people who have an accurate assessment of their own failings can end up depressed. So how do you navigate that one?
So first of all, I do believe that there probably is something to ‘Ignorance is bliss’ for some people, at least if you can hold it up for some time. But how far does it get you? Sometimes life really intervenes, and you cannot be ignorant anymore. You might want to, but you can’t! And then that’s a problem for the ‘ignorance is bliss’ crowd. This is my debate with Ursula Staudinger (click here to watch Professor Ursula Staudinger outline her view on the relationship between wisdom and happiness). She thinks that clarity of mind will not necessarily lead to bliss because it will show you the positive and the negative side of life, so you cannot ignore the negative sides of life anymore. My argument is ‘No. Wisdom does more than that!’ It’s not just clarity of insight. It also gives you the tools to deal with the vicissitudes of life – just what we were talking about earlier, right? So, not only do I realise whatever just happened to me, that really riled me up, what got me really upset because somebody cut me off in traffic, my husband said something to me which I find ridiculous, but I realise it and then, If I’m wise, I can stop it and say, ‘There is no reason to react to this’ and I see that maybe the driver was in a hurry, there was a really good reason, or even if not maybe he is a jerk, but why should I get excited about that? Or my husband feels bad right now, so why should I take it on? So it’s not that it just becomes clearer, but also it is easier to deal with these things, you know? So you have both. In Buddhist teachings, you have these two things – awareness and equanimity. If you only have awareness, and that’s what Ursula Staudinger is basically saying, ‘You have more awareness, you see things clearer’ but if you don’t also develop equanimity, then you’re in trouble, because now you see things clearer and you might react even more to it, and get more upset, because now you don’t have the ignorance anymore! Therefore you also need the equanimity. You need to develop the equanimity, so that, whatever happens, you can approach with equanimity and that comes back to meditation. That’s what you practice in meditation – you can develop this equanimity. As I say, there might be other ways to develop this. Some people might have a personality make-up that makes them have more equanimity to start with, but I think to develop it, we need some kind of practice like meditation. Also, I think being deeply religious might have the same kind of effect, you know? Very deep prayer might have exactly the same effect, so you think ‘Okay. So this happened, but there is a reason for this, and I’ll leave it up to God. This is not for me to decide.’ It might have the same kind of outcome. But it’s both.
‘You have more awareness, you see things clearer’ but if you don’t develop equanimity, then you’re in trouble, because now you see things clearer and you might react even more to it, and get more upset, because now you don’t have the ignorance anymore! … That’s what you practice in meditation – you can develop this equanimity.
So I’m clear on what you’re saying…the simplest, or crudest route to happiness, if we can call it that for the moment, may well be ignorance, but if you step beyond that and you develop awareness. That’s good because you can see positives but also the negatives, but then to go beyond that, to be able to really manage it, you need to be able to develop equanimity towards the good and bad as well, so that’s kind of the final stage?
Well, I think awareness and equanimity should go together, because if you only have the awareness but not the equanimity, it might really throw you for a loop. You see something you don’t like and you get really depressed, or if you do like it, it’s really great, and you have this up and down situation. With ‘Ignorance is bliss’, the problem is that this only works so far. What if something happens that you cannot ignore anymore. Then, this strategy doesn’t work.
Then awareness is thrust upon you, but you haven’t developed equanimity.
Exactly, and of course, there is old age, which gets me back to my topic. I’ve interviewed people, older adults and they’ve said, ‘My life was great, you know? The whole time it was great, but now, not so much. I don’t like it’. What Glen Elder was saying was that actually experiencing some crisis earlier in life, and successfully mastering this crisis, might be like a training ground for old age, because old age clearly comes with crises. Unless you drop dead suddenly, old age will come with crises, so it’s good to have some practice in overcoming crises. If people have developed wisdom earlier in life, then it should be easier to overcome these crises that often come with old age.
Unless you drop dead suddenly, old age will come with crises, so it’s good to have some practice in overcoming crises. If people have developed wisdom earlier in life, then it should be easier to overcome these crises that often come with old age.
Which are inevitable – they can’t be avoided.
They cannot be avoided. Friends die, a spouse might die. Mental capacity declines. Physical capacity declines and then, of course, the ultimate crisis – the nearing of death.
On Ageing and Dying Well
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Well this brings us onto ‘dying well’, which I’d really appreciate if you could tell me a little bit more about. It was not an idea that I had come across before I started reading your papers. I’d heard of the idea of ‘ageing well’, but what do you mean when you talk about ‘dying well’?
Well ‘dying well’ for me means that, first of all, you can face death with equanimity, without being afraid, in a very open way. Interestingly, older people, even though they are closer to death, on average are less afraid of death than younger people. They kind of accept it. It’s normative, but there is indeed variation. We made a study where I looked at subjective well-being among older hospice patients and nursing home residents, and compared this to older adults who lived in the community. What you see is that, for those who are relatively high on wisdom, there is no difference in terms of their subjective well-being, no matter if they live in the community or if they live in a nursing home or are hospice patients. On average, of course, those who live in the community tend to have higher subjective well-being scores than those who are in a nursing home or diagnosed with a terminal illness and are in a hospice. This is not surprising, right. Being in a nursing home is tough, quite frankly, you’re facing death – being a hospice patient means you have a diagnosis of less than 6 months to live. So it’s not surprising that their subjective wellbeing tends to be lower.
For those who are relatively high on wisdom, there is no difference in terms of their subjective well-being, no matter if they live in the community or if they live in a nursing home or are hospice patients.
You would expect it to be.
Right. But what was surprising was that, for those with relatively high wisdom scores, there’s no difference!
So their wisdom is enabling them to accept death
Exactly. So they are able to accept their end, with equanimity, whereas other people are like ‘Why me?’
‘Why me?!’ Well it happens to everyone!
‘How could this happen?’ right? Well you know, we are all mortal, right?
That’s interesting because everyone is going to die, and wisdom seems to be this framework that enables us to accept that, to accept something that is going to happen to all of us. Does this mean that society in some way is failing to prepare people for the inevitable?
I think so. This was one of the things I saw when I interviewed people in the hospice care centre and visited with people at home who were at hospice. It seems that in the past, 50 years ago or 75 years ago, something like this, death and dying were much more normal. People died at home. Children and younger adults were exposed to that. ‘Okay, so there is a time when people die…’ and often they could visit those people, right ‘…and this is what it looks like!’ Now, we are not used to this anymore. Death is relegated to places where we don’t see the dying and sometimes it is really hard for people to look death into the eye for their loved ones, I think because it reminds people of their own death. We haven’t prepared people for this. I envision something like ‘Lamaze for the dying’ like the ‘Lamaze birthing classes’ for the partner. ‘These are the stages. This is how it works. This is how you go through’. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something like this for family members? If people get diagnosed with a terminal illness or something, you can go ‘Okay so this is what you can expect. That’s normal. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ I’ve volunteered at hospices and I went through the training classes. First of all, you need to be okay that people don’t look so great when they’re dying, right! There was this one lady I was visiting who was a member of my study and she was in the hospice care centre. After I was done interviewing her she said ‘ So, when are you coming back?’ So I said ‘Well, I will be around to interview some other people so sure, I can come by and visit you.’ So I went every couple of days. I would just poke my head in, sit with her, say ‘How are you doing?’ I got to meet her family at one point, and they were a loving family, I mean absolutely. She had three daughters. They were a loving family. Her walls were full of ‘We love you, Mom!’ and ‘Wish-you-well’ cards, the whole thing. At the very end, the nurse told me, ‘They didn’t come anymore in the last week’. When I asked why, the nurse said, ‘Well because she didn’t look so great’. They wanted to remember her how she was, and not how she was at the very end. I think this is sad, right? What a pressure! Now you have to look good at the very end?! I’ve visited with people and I’ve seen other relatives sometimes sitting there, and they don’t know what to do. They really don’t know. It’s kind of an awkward situation. Rather than thinking ‘this is fine’ and, you know, holding their hands, stroking their arm, or doing what is appropriate, they just feel so uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is dying. They don’t know what to do. We really have lost the relationship here. This is where we try to run away – ignorance is bliss. As long as I don’t think about it, it won’t happen. Then when it does happen, everyone is shocked. How could this happen?
Death is relegated to places where we don’t see the dying and sometimes it is really hard for people to look death into the eye for their loved ones, I think because it reminds people of their own death. We haven’t prepared people for this. I envision something like ‘Lamaze for the dying’ like the ‘Lamaze birthing classes’ for the partner. ‘
I suppose that’s the ultimate example of the fact that society generally isn’t as mixed as it once was across the generations. You don’t have grandparents living with the children at home so quite often people are surprised about every stage of life as it happens to them. In the past, young children would have seen their parents and grandparents facing trials they were having so they would have been a bit better prepared for what maybe lay ahead.
Exactly. That’s exactly right. The other thing that also used to happen was that dying wasn’t such a prolonged process. People died relatively quickly. After they got some kind of a terminal illness, they would not hang around forever. Now it’s often a prolonged process and it’s not pretty, and people don’t want to be reminded of that.
Over the next five years or so, what do you think is going to be the most fruitful area of wisdom research to be looking at? Is it something along the longitudinal meditation study kind of field?
I hope that there will be a longitudinal study launched where we can actually look at predictors of wisdom later on and how wisdom affects outcomes later in life. I think that would be the most fruitful to do. It would be good if a couple of people would come together to do that.
What are you working on at the moment?
I work on quite a number of different things. One is looking at personality predictors of wisdom and looking at the different personality facets of wisdom. Another thing we want to launch is about ‘How is wisdom related to prejudice in college students?’ I am a sociologist after all so I want to push it a little in the social realm. You would think that wisdom would be negatively related to prejudice but nobody has ever studied this, so we want to take a look at this. I also have a data set that I inherited from Lucinda Orwoll, who collected it in the 1990s. It has wisdom nominees and creative nominees and a control group of people, younger and older adults, and it also has items from the adjective checklist, and I am using items from the checklist to come up with the three-dimensional wisdom measure and it seems to correlate nicely with the nominees. I can look at the correlation between ageing well and things like this. So, that’s another thing.
On Making a Wiser Society
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So there’s quite a lot on your plate! The last question I had I suppose ties in to your sociologist background: It’s sort of a magic wand situation. What single practical change in society could lead to the greatest increase in wisdom?
That is a hard question. It’s actually an interesting question because it’s a question about top-down or bottom-up. We’ve tried top-down and it doesn’t seem to work too well; the former Soviet Union, making everyone equal, and that doesn’t seem to work too well. So I think a bottom-up approach works better. On the other hand, it works better if indeed there is the ability to develop, to have the societal conditions to develop. If you have a dictatorship, that’s always tricky, right? Democracy clearly helps when people have the freedom to develop the way they want. On the other hand, and here’s where the societal comes in, meditation seems to really further wisdom and helps to develop wisdom, but we are so busy typically and don’t have time. At the same time we are now bombarded by all kinds of distractions – the internet, on our phones, everywhere. It’s everywhere! So we need to have a society that appreciates this and becomes more mindful, quite frankly. That maybe requires a society where we have more time. This is how I’d use my magic wand. When I grew up and I was in my late teens in high school, we were kind of promised that the leisure society was coming, because with all those computers and robots that are taking over our work, there isn’t going to be enough work for us to do. There’s only enough work for us to do half-time. Everybody can be employed but maybe they can only be employed half-time. Well wouldn’t this be great? Everybody has a 20-hours per week job and they have enough money so they can actually live on that, right? Then you’d have all this time for your personal development. You would have time to raise your children so that you don’t plop them in front of the computer or the TV or the smartphone. We can be more social again, right? We can meet each other, meditate together, whatever, right? So yes, I think that would be how I’d use my magic wand; that we have more time, so that we basically distribute work more evenly and also that we distribute the efficiency gains that the robots give to us more equally in some ways.
Well wouldn’t this be great? Everybody has a 20-hours per week job and they have enough money so they can actually live on that, right? Then you’d have all this time for your personal development. You would have time to raise your children so that you don’t plop them in front of the computer or the TV or the smartphone. We can be more social again, right? We can meet each other, meditate together, whatever, right?
So rather than just packing more work into these efficiency gains we’ve made, just keep that time for ourselves?
Yes. Well right now what we have is that, the people who have work, work harder than ever, and then there are a lot of people who are unemployed and that’s not the best situation.
So it would be better if it was spread out, so everyone was working two-and-a-half days a week. That sounds good. I like that. I’ll have to try and find you a magic wand.
Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Ardelt’s research?
The Wisdom Scorecard – Test yourself on the 39-item Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale
Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System: A Critical Review of a Contemporary Operationalization of an Ancient Concept (Ardelt, 2004) – Ardelt’s 2004 paper introducing the Three-dimensional Wisdom Scale
Wisdom and Life Satisfaction in Old Age (Ardelt, 1997) – In this paper, Ardelt challenged traditional beliefs regarding what leads to successful ageing. Through use of an early form of the three-dimensional wisdom scale, she shows that levels of wisdom have a stronger influence on life satisfaction than objective circumstances.
Self-Reported Wisdom and Happiness: An Empirical Investigation (Bergsma & Ardelt, 2011) – Read more in-depth detail on the ‘Wisdom vs Happiness’ debate.
Conversations on Wisdom University of Chicago – Video interview with Wisdom Researcher Monika Ardelt – Here Ardelt outlines her much-celebrated three-dimensional wisdom scale
Evidence-based Wisdom Post: 3-DIMENSIONAL WISDOM: Can wisdom be measured? – In this recent post, some of the challenges associated with measuring wisdom are considered and the development of the 3DWS is discussed in further detail.
Society for the Study of Human Development – Monika Ardelt is Executive Secretary of The Society for the Study of Human Development. The SSHD is a professional society formed by a group of scholars from multiple disciples (e.g., medicine, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, and history). The central focus of SSHD is to provide an organization that moves beyond age-segmented scholarly organisations to take an integrative, interdisciplinary approach to ages/stages across the life span, generational and ecological contexts of human development, and research and applications to human development policies and programs. SSHD currently includes over 200 members.
If you have any thoughts about the interview, do get in touch. You can contact me via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.