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Researchers find that wisdom and happiness increase as people grow older

washingtonpost.com | 08/27/10

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With 14 siblings screaming at one another, mediator Carolyn Miller Parr threatened to summon a security guard at D.C. Superior Court. That lowered the temperature in the room.

When the family returned for a second session, disagreements escalated again. This time Parr took a gentler approach, coaxing the siblings to put their mother's interests above their own squabbling. They settled the dispute that day.

"I used to very quickly choose sides," says Parr, who's 73 and co-founder of Beyond Dispute Associates, a mediation and arbitration practice. Now, she says, "I'm much less judgmental of people."

By reappraising the situation and adjusting her emotional response, Parr illustrates -- and scientists are coming to accept -- the way wisdom actually does increase with age.

Contrary to largely gloomy cultural perceptions, growing old brings some benefits, notably emotional and cognitive stability. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the "well-being paradox." Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

That may help explain the finding that old age correlates with happiness. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found a U-shaped relationship between happiness and age: Adults were happiest in youth and again in their 70s and early 80s, and least happy in middle age. A 2007 University of Chicago study similarly concluded that rates of happiness -- "the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life positively" -- crept upward from age 65 to 85 and beyond, in both sexes.

Wisdom appears to follow a similar trajectory and not only because raising a family, navigating a career and experiencing love, loss, success and failure all educate older adults.

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