A Word to the Wise: How Wisdom Affects Older Adults’ Well-Being

A recent study explored three components of wisdom and their association with older adults’ subjective well-being and the impact of negative life events.

While wisdom has long been associated with older age, it has only recently been receiving attention as an object of scientific study. This is partly due to the difficulty of defining wisdom in a measurable way. However, a recent study broke down wisdom into three main components: the cognitive (a desire to understand a deeper truth), the reflective (perceiving events from multiple perspectives), and the compassionate (showing greater sympathy and motivation to help others). Using this formulation, the study looked at wisdom’s association with subjective well-being and the impact of negative life events.

An analysis of data from 994 older adults who participated in the study showed that wisdom scores were positively associated with participants’ subjective well-being, even after adjusting for demographic factors. This association of wisdom with subjective well-being accounted for 46 percent of the variation seen in well-being scores. When researchers dug deeper into which aspects of wisdom might account for these associations, they found that only reflective wisdom remained statistically significant.

After examining the association with well-being overall, the researchers looked at whether wisdom might moderate the relationship between adverse life events and lower subjective well-being. Here, they found that “high wisdom scores neutralized the negative association between adverse life events and subjective well-being.” On the other hand, low wisdom scores exacerbated the negative influence of adverse life events on subjective well-being. Again, when researchers examined which aspect of wisdom contributed to this association, they found that only reflective wisdom was statistically significant.

This study provides some scientific support for the importance and value of wisdom for older adults. Moreover, it suggests the potential positive impact of efforts to foster greater reflective wisdom in older adults, with a particular focus on taking on multiple perspectives.


Ardelt M and Jeste DV. Wisdom and hard times: the ameliorating effect of wisdom on the negative association between adverse life events and well-being. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2018); 73(8): 1374–1383.

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