The road to wisdom runs through hardship, study finds


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

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.”

“What we [were] really looking at [was] ‘when bad things happen, what happens?’” she explains, adding that what’s important is that “the event can become a catalyst for changes that come afterwards.”

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.”

How could searching for our life’s purpose help us to overcome difficult obstacles?

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.

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.”