Day 13: Old and wise?

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One of the assumptions of this blog is that you really get wiser with age. Or at the very least that wisdom is something you acquire more and more of as you get older. (Can acquire, I should say.) But is that really so? And if not, does that mean that this blog only is a description of my inevitable decline?

Scientists who deal with wisdom have come to different conclusions:

One study found that Americans get wiser as they age, whereas Japanese are wise before they’re old.

One study found that wisdom doesn’t necessarily increase with age (“Rather, they identified a “plateau” of wisdom-related performance through much of middle and old age; a separate study by the group has indicated that wisdom begins, on average, to diminish around age 75, probably hand in hand with cognitive decline. Nonetheless, [they suggested] that there might be an optimal age and that “the ‘world record’ in wisdom may be held by someone in his or her 60s.”)

One study found that at least one kind of wisdom comes with age. (“In two experiments younger and older adults perform ed decision-making tasks where reward values available were either independent or dependent of the previous sequence of choices made. The choice independent task involved learning and exploiting the options that gave the highest rewards on each trial. In this task the stability of the expected rewards for each option was not influenced by the choices participants made. The choice-dependent task involved learning how each choice influenced the rewards available for both options on future trials and making the best decisions based on that knowledge. Younger adults performed better when rewards were choice-independent, while older adults performed better when rewards were choice-dependent.”)

Others think that wisdom and age are independent (“It is a widespread belief that wisdom comes with age. But as the gerontologist Bernice Neugarten used to say, ‘You can’t expect a dumb youngster to grow up to be a wise senior’.”)

When I was i child, I always got annoyed by older people complaining about their dwindling abilities. Yes, yes, your memory is failing you, ok, I get it, you’re not able to think in the same way as you used to, you’re slower. But so what? My thinking is still quick, and yet you beat me in tic-tac-toe. I remember stuff without even trying to, whereas you must concentrate and pay attention just to remember what you should have remembered — and yet, at the end of the day, who remembers to remember? Who knows when to remember, who knows what to remember? You. My head is full of random facts; your head is full of structures made by experience. Yes, you’re slower; but at least you know where you’re going.

Of course it’s a bit sad to realise that you can’t do what you used to be able to do without thinking. But what do you expect? You can always find areas where you can improve (a ten-year old is not as flexible as a two-year old — but do you hear him complain about it?) — there is always something new you can learn, something exciting you haven’t tried, some books you haven’t read. So why should you spend your time being bitter?

To me, wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age, and you don’t need grey hairs to be wise. But if being wise implies the ability to look at the world rather than gaze at your navel, than age makes it easier. There are very few adolescents who can do that (I know I wasn’t one of them.), even young adults have a hard time doing that, they’re too preoccupied fretting about their own life and what their friends might say.

Even most old adults are too preoccupied with what their friends and neighbours might say.

So no, age and wisdom is not the same thing. But being old means having had many years to experience things and learn stuff — and in the long run, you will become what you try to be. Try to be kind, and you will be kinder as the years go by. Keep on trying to nice to people, or creative, or caring, or smiling, and it will make you more creative etc.

Keep on trying to be wise, whatever that might mean, keep on trying to figure out what wisdom is, and you will be wiser as you get older.

In other words, you should start as early as possible. And you should assume that wisdom really can increase with age.

If not, you’ll end up as a grumpy, miserable old man. And we don’t want that.

EDIT: This can count as answer to this task: Explain the broad outlook of your life in one or two sentences as a weekly exercise. Right? Right. Good.

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