God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And the wisdom to know the difference.
Wisdom is often believed to be the quintessence of successful human development (Erikson 1963; Erikson, Erikson, and Kivnick 1986; Hart 1987; Staudinger and Pasupathi 2003). Wise people are considered to be exceptionally mature, integrated, satisfied with life, able to make decisions in difficult and uncertain life matters, and capable of dealing with any crisis and obstacle that they encounter (Ardelt 2000a, 2000b; Assmann 1994; Baltes and Freund 2003; Baltes and Kunzmann 2003; Bianchi 1994; Clayton 1982; Dittmann-Kohli and Baltes 1990; Kekes 1983, 1995; Kramer 2000; Kunzmann and Baltes 2003; Sternberg 1990b, 1998; Vaillant 1993, 2002). In fact, successfully coping with crises and hardships in life might not only be a hallmark of wise individuals but also one of the pathways to wisdom (Ardelt 1998; Bianchi 1994; Kramer 1990; Pascual-Leone 2000). According to Pascual-Leone (2000), "... ultimate limit situations that cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve--situations like death, illness, aging, irremediable oppression or loss, extreme poverty, rightful resistance or rebellion, guilt, absolute failure, danger, uncontrollable fear, etc., lead to the natural emergence of a transcendental self, if they do not destroy the person first" (247, emphasis in the original).
Yet, no research to date has analyzed what wise individuals actually do when confronted with hardship and obstacles in life. The purpose of this exploratory qualitative study was to examine how relatively wise older people cope with life crises in comparison to older people relatively low on wisdom. An in-depth analysis was performed of six semistructured qualitative interviews with older adults (ages fifty-nine to eighty-five) who had been asked about the most pleasant and most unpleasant events in their lives and how they had coped with the unpleasant events. Results show that the three older persons who scored and were rated as relatively high on wisdom were more reflective and used more active coping strategies than did the three elders who scored and were rated as relatively low on wisdom. As a consequence, the three relatively wise elders gained in wisdom through their encounter with crises and obstacles in life, whereas respondents who scored and were judged as relatively low on wisdom had great difficulties in coping with severe hardship in life.
Definition of Wisdom
Before the question of how wise people cope with crises and obstacles in life can be examined, one first has to define what wisdom is. Even after two and a half decades of contemporary wisdom research, however, a uniform definition of wisdom still does not exist. Some current wisdom definitions are derived from explicit (expert) theories of wisdom, whereas others are based on implicit (lay) theories of wisdom, and those definitions can be further distinguished according to the wisdom traditions of the West or the East and whether they refer to personal or general wisdom (Sternberg and Jordan 2005). For example, explicit theories define...
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