Wisdom Works: Older Adults with Physical Limitations Benefit from Wisdom

Research has identified a number of factors associated with subjective well-being. In particular, studies have shown that physical health, functional limitations, and self-rated health all have an association with reported levels of subjective well-being. Recently, researchers have also looked at the role that wisdom might play in terms of an older adults’ subjective well-being, and have found that it too has a positive association with these scores. A just-published study looks at whether wisdom might have a stronger association with subjective well-being among those older adults who were facing greater limitations in their physical health.

In order to determine whether wisdom had a greater impact on subjective well-being for individuals with physical limitations, the researchers compared a population of 156 community residents with 41 older adults who were hospice patients or nursing home residents.

The measurable definition of wisdom that these researchers used was “an integration of cognitive, reflective, and compassionate dimensions.” The cognitive dimension of wisdom includes a desire to know a deeper truth about truths about life, such as knowledge and acceptance of positive and negative sides of human nature and life’s unpredictability and uncertainties. The reflective dimension involves self-examination, self-awareness, and self-insight. The compassionate dimension involves a sympathetic and compassionate love for all and a motivation to enhance others’ well-being. As for subjective well-being, the authors describe this as “high satisfaction with life, the presence of pleasant emotions, such as cheerfulness, and the absence of depressive symptoms.”

Before looking at the impact of wisdom on subjective well-being, the researchers looked at other factors in the population studied that were associated with better subjective well-being. They found that self-reported good health, social involvement, and lack of economic pressures were associated with greater subjective well-being. Being in nursing or hospice care was associated with lower subjective well-being scores. Taken together, these factors accounted for 50 percent of the overall variation in subjective well-being scores among study participants.

Turning to the impact of wisdom, this factor explained an additional 5 percent of the overall variation in subjective well-being scores. Comparing the community group and the nursing care/hospice group showed that the effect of wisdom on subjective well-being was significantly stronger in the latter group. Members of either group with a score of 4.45 or better on the wisdom scale had similar scores on the subjective well-being scale, but the main differences between the two groups showed for those individuals with low wisdom scores.

One theory of why wisdom has a positive impact on subjective well-being is that wisdom can provide a sense of mastery over one’s environment and a sense of purpose. In addition to testing whether wisdom had a stronger association with subjective well-being when an older individual is faced with physical limitations, this study looked at the question of whether senses of mastery and purpose account for the association between wisdom and subjective well-being, and found that they did account for some but not all of the association between wisdom and subjective well-being.

The authors conclude that “this suggests that wisdom is indeed a valuable asset for older adults at the end of life, because it may help them optimize their well-being by selecting goals that are still attainable, such as giving and receiving love, gratitude, and forgiveness, and thereby compensate for social and physical losses that are inevitable at the last stage of life.” They go on to observe that “this study suggests that successful aging also depends on cognitive, reflective and compassionate dimensions, which might be the result of lifelong psychosocial growth.” Researchers and theorists suggest that wisdom is facilitated by wise role models, and having opportunities for psychosocial growth such as occupational or volunteer experiences that promote reflection, compassion, and the search for a deeper meaning in life. Some older adults will have had such opportunities earlier in life, but it is perhaps worth considering how the aging services and senior living sectors can provide such opportunities to the older adults that they serve. The wisdom that can be gained from such opportunities can help buoy subjective well-being at times when other limitations are taking their toll, creating “a meaningful and satisfying old age that does not depend on physical health and vigor.”


Ardelt M and Edwards CA. Wisdom at the end of life: an analysis of mediating and moderating relations between wisdom and subjective well-being. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences Social Sciences. (2015). gbv051 DOI:10.1093/geronb/gbv051

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