Wisdom and happiness

Wisdom and happiness

Brisbane Times

Wisdom the key to happiness

Michael McLeod | July 11, 2007 – 11:05AM

ORLANDO, Florida.- When asked to define wisdom, Socrates just shrugged. He said he couldn’t find it, whatever it was, either in himself or in any of his fellow citizens.

The news from Monika Ardelt is more encouraging. Yes, she reports, wisdom is rare. No, it is not extinct. If you know where to look, you can catch glimpses of it, darting in and out of its usual habitat.

Most scholars seek wisdom in folklore, ancient texts and the spiritual visionaries of the ages: Siddhartha, Confucius, Lao Tsu, Buddha, Abraham, Muhammad, Jesus Christ.

Ardelt, a 47-year-old University of Florida sociologist, bypasses the usual suspects, searching instead among ordinary souls.

She finds wisdom in a 77-year-old retired school administrator who learned, over his lifetime, to see problems as games, meant to be played out rather than feared.

“I’ve never allowed any outside force to take possession of my being,” he says.

She finds wisdom in an 85-year-old homemaker who lived by the creed: “Do whatever has to be done, whether you want to do it or not.”

The strategy served her well. She had used it most recently to get through painful rehab from two knee operations, succeeding where others often failed, eventually ditching both her walker and her cane in favour of her own two feet.

Ardelt finds wisdom in a 59-year-old woman with only 10 years of education who, in the middle of a hurricane, pretended to fall asleep in order to calm her children.

‘somebody has to be cool,” the woman explains. “It works during funerals, too.”

Since the mid-1990s, using church and social groups and retirement and health facilities as her hunting grounds, Ardelt has discovered wisdom among scores of senior citizens, using questionnaires, one-on-one interviews and even a 39-question “wisdom quiz” to ferret it out among the elders.

In a 1998 study, she interviewed 82 women and 39 men between the ages of 58 and 82, asking them, in essence, how happy they were, and why.

She was hoping to see how wisdom would stack up against health and money as a contributing factor to contentment.

Wisdom beat both challengers decisively.

More recently, Ardelt decided to find out what strategies both wise and relatively unwise individuals use when confronted with the hardships and obstacles of life.

She started by asking 180 senior volunteers to anonymously take a test she called a “personality and aging well study”.

The questionnaire was actually designed to gauge how each individual scored on a “wisdom” scale, based on qualities most often associated with that virtue: selflessness, compassion, objectivity, flexibility and a deep, unblinking understanding of life and human nature.

Then subjects were interviewed individually about how they handled difficult situations in their lives and were secretly given yet another score based on their answers.

Ardelt selected the three who scored the highest and the three who scored the lowest and compared each trio to the other.

What she quickly realised was that wise elders tended to use three main strategies in dealing with difficulties.

They distanced themselves from a crisis so it would not overpower them, taking a step backward to calm themselves – to become, as the one respondent phrased it, the “cool” one.

They did what they could to actively cope with a challenge – working hard at rehab after a knee operation, for example, rather than giving in to self-pity and pain.

And when a crisis arose in their lives, they applied their own personal codes, or “life lessons,” such as never giving in to an outside force, or always doing what needs to be done.

Ardelt says she learned just as much about wisdom by examining the responses of those who were least in touch with it.

The three who scored lowest in the “wisdom profile” were “extremely vulnerable and defenceless when experiencing extreme hardships in life,” she says.

They suffered through ordeals without trying to analyse or cope with them. They tended to believe there was nothing they could do about obstacles such as financial problems, health problems and the behaviour of errant spouses.

Most dramatically, while wise individuals rarely complained and talked often and with obvious delight about the welfare of those they loved during interviews, their low-scoring counterparts much preferred to discuss themselves and their own never-ending catalog of complaints.

Self-absorption, and the unhappiness that comes with it, has become a recurring theme in Ardelt’s observations. “It’s striking to me just how harmful self-centredness is to the individual,” she says.

How wise are you?

Here are sample questions from Monika Ardelt’s “Wisdom Quiz.”

Respondents were asked to select strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree.

These and 33 other questions are intended to provide clues about qualities such as compassion, flexibility, acceptance, open-mindedness and contentment – all qualities associated with wisdom.

1. I am annoyed by unhappy people who just feel sorry for themselves.

2. Life is basically the same most of the time.

3. People make too much of the feelings and sensitivities of animals.

4. You can classify almost all people as either honest or crooked.

5. I would feel much better if my present circumstances changed.

6. There is only one right way to do anything.

The “wisest” responses to all of the questions above would be “disagree” or ‘strongly disagree.”

How did you score?