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People are trying to quantify and objectify wisdom. Is it measurable? What is it?

From the NY Times:

Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament; emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences. And yet as psychologists have noted, there is a yin-yang to the idea that makes it difficult to pin down. Wisdom is founded upon knowledge, but part of the physics of wisdom is shaped by uncertainty. Action is important, but so is judicious inaction. Emotion is central to wisdom, yet detachment is essential.
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…In the late 1970’s, Vivian Clayton identified three general aspects of human activity that were central to wisdom — the acquisition of knowledge (cognitive) and the analysis of that information (reflective) filtered through the emotions (affective). Then she assembled a battery of existing psychological tests to measure it.
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In 1990, as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Monica Ardelt wanted to identify factors that contributed to a sense of life satisfaction and well-being in old age and began to focus on the acquisition of wisdom… She was interested in investigating measures of wisdom and looking at a trait that often goes by the name “resilience” — how some older people are able to deal with adversity and bounce back emotionally while others cannot. Indeed, as she has noted, “successfully coping with crises and hardships in life might not only be a hallmark of wise individuals but also one of the pathways to wisdom.”  In Ardelt’s working definition, wisdom integrated three separate but interconnected ways of dealing with the world: cognitive, reflective and emotional. The cognitive aspect, included the ability to understand human nature, perceive a situation clearly and make decisions despite ambiguity and uncertainty. The reflective sphere dealt with a person’s ability to examine an event from multiple perspectives — to step outside oneself and understand another point of view. And the emotional aspect primarily involved feeling compassion toward others as well as an ability to remain positive in the face of adversity.

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“I have identified people I consider wise and people I consider relatively low in wisdom,” says Ardelt, who is still analyzing the data. People who rated high in wisdom, she adds, were “very generous,” both financially and emotionally; among those who rated low in wisdom, “there was this occupation with the self.”

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Wisdom studies are “fuzzy”…Yet many of the emotional and cognitive traits that rank high on current research agendas — resilience, positivity, expert knowledge systems, cognitive processing and especially the regulation of emotion — closely overlap with qualities that have been consistently identified by Clayton, Baltes, Ardelt and other social scientists as crucial to wisdom.  One of the most interesting areas of neuroscience research involves looking at the way people regulate their emotions and how that regulation can change over the course of a lifetime… Older people experience negative emotions less frequently, exercise better control over their emotions and rely on a complex and nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to bounce back quickly from adverse moments.

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…There’s a lot of loss associated with aging, and humans are the only species that recognizes that time eventually runs out. That influences the motivation to savor the day-to-day experiences you have, it allows you to be more positive. Appreciating the fragility of life helps you savor it.  As time horizons shorten, things become much clearer, because people are letting their feelings navigate what they do, who they spend time with, what are the choices they’re making in life, and it’s about right now.

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… older people with a more positive attitude toward old age lived seven and a half years longer.

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There are strong hints that wisdom is associated with an earlier exposure to adversity or failure. That certainly seems to be the case with emotional regulation and is perfectly consistent with Carstensen’s ideas about shifting time horizons. Karen Parker and her colleagues at Stanford have published several striking animal studies showing that a very early exposure to mild adversity (she calls it a “stress inoculation”) seems to “enhance the development of brain systems that regulate emotional, neuroendocrine and cognitive control” — at least in nonhuman primates. Some researchers are also exploring the genetic basis of resilience.

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The Berlin group reported that the roots of wisdom can be traced, in some cases, to adolescence. Jacqui Smith points out that many of the people in the Berlin Aging Study survived two world wars and a global depression; the elderly people who scored high on Monika Ardelt’s wisdom scale also reported considerable hardship earlier in their lives.

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