Quick — who are the wisest people you know? Chances are they have at least a few things in common: They’re experienced, kind and of a certain age. Wisdom, the thinking generally goes, is hard-earned by putting in your time and piecing together scraps of knowledge along the way.
But maybe a younger person also sprang to mind — someone who, despite his or her relative youth, you regard as genuinely wise. That’s because wisdom — which University of Florida, Gainesville sociology professor Monika Ardelt, defines as a combination of cognitive, reflective and compassionate qualities — is not the sole purview of the elderly. Wisdom, explains Ardelt (who studies the topic), is something that can be cultivated, and the potential pay-offs are big: Her research has shown that wise men and women enjoy improved well-being as they age, because they’re better able to deal with challenges, such as declining health and the loss of loved ones.
So what are the secrets of those people who are wise beyond their years? Ardelt shares a few traits that wise people tend to have in common, as well as several pathways for getting there … soon.
1. Wise people have a lot of experiences …
The reason it’s often said that wisdom comes with age is, in fact, because older people tend to have had more life experiences than their younger counterparts. And experience, Ardelt says, is one of the true cornerstones of wisdom.
2. … And they’re sponges.
“It’s not just experiences alone that make you wise, it is learning from them,” Ardelt says — and not everyone does that. That’s why she pushes back against the idea that travel necessarily cultivates wisdom. Sure, some people leave their comfort zone and see the world through a different lens, which opens them up in new and valuable ways, but others travel the world and don’t learn at all. If anything, Ardelt said, traveling just reinforces their negative stereotypes. The key is soaking up lessons wherever you are, whether it’s the town where you’ve lived your entire life, or some far-flung location.
3. Wise people see what’s right in front of them.
After the publication of a recent New York Times article on the connection between age and wisdom (which referenced Ardelt’s research) a reader wrote her summing up wisdom as, basically, understanding the obvious. “Wise people know something,” Ardelt says. “But the interesting thing is not that they know more, about, say, the origin of the universe … wise people actually know the deeper meaning of things that are generally known, actually.”
We all know we’re going to die, for example. Wise people have a better understanding of the meaning of that, and live differently — placing an emphasis on relationships, spirituality and personal growth rather than on more superficial markers of success.
4. They meditate.
In order to achieve that kind of direct, I-see-who-I-am, who-you-are, and-the-circumstances-right-in-front-of-us kind of knowledge, reflection is paramount, Ardelt says. Which is why meditation — a kind of self-examination — has long been believed to be a pathway to wisdom. “It’s kind of a time out of everyday life by just observing the breath, or observing sensations,” she says. “Naturally, things come up and the trick is just to accept it, whatever it is, and not to react with negativity.”
5. Wise people grow from crises.
Often the people who are considered wise beyond their years have survived a trauma, or several, and have effectively coped with it, according to Ardelt. Indeed, there’s an entire area of psychology dedicated to post-traumatic growth — exploring the ways in which people who have survived something devastating emerge changed for the better.
But wisdom can also come from managing smaller problems, she says — such as a really bad day at work, or someone cutting you off in traffic: “These are little crises, and you can say, ‘How do I react to this?’ Do you get all riled up, or do you look at it from another perspective?” Your boss may have had a bad day, or that the man in traffic may have been under enormous pressure to get home for reasons you can’t fully know.
6. They have a strong support network.
One of the conditions that tends to separate people who are able to grow and learn from a difficult situation from those who are not is the presence of a strong support system, Ardelt explains. It may be a formal support group, therapy, friends or family. “People who feel that they are alone … if there is nothing, it can be very difficult to learn anything [from the trauma] because it’s just so devastating,” she says.
7. They’re tolerant.
Compassion is a key component of wisdom, Ardelt says. She cites the example of very skilled politicians or sales people who may have a keen understanding of themselves, or great insights into how the world works, but if they use that knowledge for self-centered means, they lack true wisdom.
That’s why reflection is so important — it helps you see yourself as you truly are, limitations and all, so you can then empathize with others, and act accordingly.