How does somebody become wise? A plethora of writers and philosophers has tried to answer that question. Now, research gives the answer, and the route is anything but straightforward.

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We can’t always avoid difficult times, but how and when do they help us to grow as individuals?

A famous Japanese proverb says, “Fall down seven times, and stand up eight,” implying that there is much to be gained from resilience in the face of obstacles.

The idea that learning from hardship can help us to grow as people is one that spans centuries and continents.

From movies to pop songs, there are endless works that tell us how our experiences — the difficult ones, in particular — might make us mentally stronger and wiser.

Carolyn Aldwin, director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis, set out to investigate whether or not experiencing difficult life events adds to our wisdom.

The findings of the study that she conducted with colleagues Heidi Igarashi and Michael Levenson suggest that there’s merit in the idea, but that in reality, it’s not just about surviving hard times. In effect, wisdom comes from how we deal with difficulties and what we actively learn from those experiences.

The adage used to be ‘with age comes wisdom,’ but that’s not really true. Generally, the people who had to work to sort things out after a difficult life event are the ones who arrived at new meaning.”

Carolyn Aldwin

Aldwin and her colleagues have recently published their findings in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

“What we [were] really looking at [was] ‘when bad things happen, what happens?'” she explains, adding that what’s important is that “[t]he event can become a catalyst for changes that come afterward.”

The researchers interviewed 50 people — 14 men and 36 women — aged 56–91 and asked them to describe the most difficult event that they had experienced in their lives, how they overcame it, and whether or not the event became a turning point that affected their perspective and actions.

“One thing that stood out right away,” says Aldwin, “is that, when asked to think about a difficult life event or challenge, people had an answer right away. Difficult times are a way people define themselves.”

Of the 50 participants, 13 said that the difficult event they’d identified did not lead them to question their life’s meaning and did not impact their outlook on the world. Some of these people explained that they accepted the life event for what it was, knowing that there was nothing they could do to change it.

Other subjects, however, said that they used their personal strengths — such as intelligence, self-control, and planning skills — to overcome issues related to the event they could do nothing to change, such as retiring from work, or the death of a loved one.

For five of the participants, going through rough times — experiencing an adverse health event, for example — helped them to find and accept their own truth, which was present in their lives before but never clearly articulated.

Or, as the authors write in their paper, in these instances, the difficult “situations prompted an acute awareness and commitment to ideas that had previously been unarticulated or perfunctory.”

Thirty-two of the respondents viewed difficult life events as a landmark in their journey through life. For these people, hardships were trials that disrupted “their sense of competence, feelings of safety and predictability, and understandings of their world,” heavily rewriting their personal identity.

“For these folks,” explains Aldwin, “the event really rocked their boat and challenged how they saw life and themselves.”

Looking at all the interviews, the researchers also found that there were nine main items related to social interaction that played an important role in how the individuals coped with negative events. These were:

  1. enlisting help
  2. rallying around or receiving unsolicited emotional support from social networks
  3. physical contact, particularly being held and holding
  4. receiving unwanted support, such as from over-concerned relatives
  5. contrasting self with others
  6. seeking expert advice by seeing a therapist, for instance
  7. seeking others with similar experiences
  8. making new connections
  9. learning from society at large

Aldwin and colleagues saw that many of these social interactions were crucial to how an individual grew and became wiser after a difficult life event.

“It mattered whether a participant was expected to adjust to the event quickly and ‘get back to life,’ or whether they were encouraged to grow and change as a result of the event,” notes Igarashi, adding, “The quality of the social interactions really make a difference.”

In short, the study confirms that we derive wisdom from how we relate to life events and how much we question our beliefs and our values for growth. Importantly, though, the type and quality of the social contact that we experience during hard times also play a role in determining whether we stagnate or become wiser.

“Typically, the type of social support you get is the kind you ask for and allow, and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” says Igarashi. “But being open to the resources in your social network, or seeking out things like grief support groups may be worth exploring.”