Do we get wiser as we age?

I hope so. From what I’ve seen, many people do get wiser as they get older – but certainly not everyone. The cranky old man and the bitter old woman – we’ve all met them, right? Surely we can do something to prevent that from happening to us.

My favorite book on the subject is called Aging Well, by George Vaillant, with the long subtitle of Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. Perhaps you’ve heard of this Harvard study, which began in 1938 and followed a set of more than 200 Harvard graduates with detailed questionnaires, interviews, and physical exams regularly throughout their lives.

When this book was written in 2002, the Harvard study men had just passed age 80, and their answers give interesting insights into how to age well – with a zest for life – and what went wrong for those who aged poorly. Because that study included only privileged men, Dr. Vaillant, a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, also included responses from inner-city Boston blue-collar men as well as older women interviewed for a similar Stanford study. He looked for clues to a healthy, meaningful, satisfying old age.

So why did some of these people live long lives, relatively happy and healthy, and why did others end up sad or sick? Was it genetics? Childhood poverty? Personality type? Not so much. Successful emotional and physical aging, Vaillant found, does not depend on things we can’t control but rather on things we can: not smoking and drinking, figuring out mature ways to cope, staying fit, and sustaining a loving relationship.

How to grow old with grace? Here’s how Vaillant sums up his findings:

  1. Care about others and be open to new ideas.
  2. Gracefully accept help when you need it.
  3. Maintain hope in life and cherish initiative.
  4. Retain a sense of humor and a capacity for play.
  5. Take sustenance from the past but continue to learn from the next generation.
  6. Maintain contact and intimacy with old friends.

This is just a summary. The book contains a lot more – great examples and surprising insights. My biggest surprise: old age does not correlate with deepening spirituality. I found that chapter disturbing! If you find this topic fascinating, I recommend you check out this book.

What do you think is the secret to aging well – and wisely?

Can we become wiser? A five-month "course"

Were you an eager-beaver achiever at school? If so, you might enjoy a five-month “course” in wisdom, starting today. If not, you might like the freedom of dipping in, now and again, to see if there’s anything here that applies to your life. In either case, I can promise no tests, no grades, no passing or failing. Only stimulating thoughts every week on topics that matter for a life well-lived.


Twenty weeks, twenty questions, between now and the end of the year. Are you up for it?

What do I mean by “wisdom”? I’m not talking about the stars here, or God, or the origin of the universe. I’m talking about how you understand yourself and treat others. Wisdom for everyday living with more compassion and understanding.


When I embarked on my project, one wise woman asked me: “How do you define wisdom?” I had trouble with that. Don’t we all have different definitions?


I started by thinking of people who sometimes act in ways I consider “unwise” – as well as times I considered my own reactions unwise. I wrote a list of attributes I consider unwise. Then I decided that was too negative, so I turned it around. Here’s the list I came up with:


A wise person does the following:

  • Figures out a way to maintain positive healthy relationships with most friends and family
  • Understands and respects others’ needs and feelings
  • Knows how to let go of and rise above bitterness and past troubles
  • Finds a way to express anger without letting it poison relationships
  • Knows how to emerge from negative thinking and overcome it
  • Takes charges of his or her life and finds purpose and direction
  • Helps others with a good heart and intention
  • Thinks and behaves toward others with humility, kindness and compassion
  • Seeks a way to make the world a better place.

I’m rather fond of this list, but I realize others would define wisdom in a different way.

How would you define wisdom? Please let me know!

And come back in a few days and I’ll let you know what some experts say.

Dori Jones Yang: My Wise Women Project

How do you define success? Wealth, power, fame? For me, it was achievement. I absorbed other people’s definitions of what that meant in my field (journalism and writing), and that became my goal. And I achieved a lot.


But recently, I turned sixty, and now I’m seeking a new way to define success. It has more to do with the way we treat others, how we sustain our closest relationships, and what we do to make a difference in the world around us.


Look at the celebrities whose antics bombard us. They have achieved greatly in their fields: sports, music, movies, politics, even religion. Yet one kills his girlfriend, another gets arrested for shoplifting. One dies of a drug overdose, another preaches family values and gets exposed with his pants down. Even those famous for doing good for others sometimes get caught with their hand in the till. After twenty years in the news business, I understand that these are the exceptions, not the norm. Still, celebrities are no place to look for role models.


I suspect that our best role models are ordinary people around us. I discovered this myself when I set out to interview older women I admire as wise. I asked each of these wise women twenty questions about how to improve relationships, cope with tough emotions, navigate rocky midlife transitions, and achieve a sense of calm and contentment. In their answers, I found surprising insights, actionable suggestions, and inspiration, and I gathered them in a book, Warm Cup of Wisdom: Inspirational Insights on Relationships and Life.


Fired with the enthusiasm from that book, I am now embarking on a larger journey. I want to find a way to be wiser in the second half of life. I want to become deeper, more thoughtful, more intentional about how I live my life, with guidance from ordinary people who have grown from their mistakes.


One of my wise women told me, “I love to dwell in the beauty of the ordinary.” I’d like to take that one step further: I’d like to seek wisdom in the ordinary. I want to find ordinary folks who are wise—of all ages, but especially elders. I want to interview them, to ask them to share their insights. I envision a guidebook for a good life, co-authored with people who have figured it out.


I’d like to ask you to help me with this wisdom project. You can recommend people I should profile – or better yet, interviewing them yourself. Ask them some of my questions, and send me their answers. I will choose some to feature on this blog. Perhaps, if they agree, they will show up in my next book. They might like that, but the real benefit goes to you: you’ve expanded your community and opened up dialogue with someone you admire as wise.


Together, we can find caches of wisdom that appeal to many of us, in our marvelous variety of personalities and backgrounds. Like gold or copper or rare earths, they are out there under otherwise ordinary landscapes, and we can mine them. But unlike minerals, this wisdom will grow and spread once it is brought out of the depths into the sunshine.


The pursuit of wisdom is a journey without an endpoint. No one can say, “I made it! I’m wise now.” The best we can do is to notice how wisdom has improved our relationships and our lives. So my goal is not the achievement of wisdom but a calm, reassuring sense that I am wiser now than I was a year ago—with the hope that I’ll be wiser a year from now.

Will you join me in this journey?

Please leave comments at

Can wisdom be measured?

I know. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Knowledge can be measured – although even that rouses controversy. But how could anyone possibly measure wisdom?

Perhaps I should not have been surprised to find out that academics have attempted to measure wisdom. Monika Ardelt, a sociology professor at the University of Florida, has become a guru of wisdom. (Someday I hope to ask her for an interview or guest post about her research!) She developed a questionnaire that attempts to measure your level of wisdom. It is a list of 39 statements, and you rate yourself according to whether you agree with each statement or whether it is true of you.

Drawing on research by other scholars before her, Professor Ardelt divides wisdom into three categories: cognitive, reflective, and affective. What does all that mean, in plain English? For “cognitive,” she looks at how well you understand the complexities of life and human nature and how well can you make decisions. By “reflective,” she means self-awareness and the ability to look at things from other perspectives. And “affective” measures how compassionate you are toward other people.

I found this fascinating. When I created the twenty questions I wanted to ask of wise people, I noticed that most of my topics involved either self-reflection (understanding how you deal with anger, attitude toward happiness, response to failure) or interpersonal relations (with spouse, grown children, difficult people). My questions fell neatly into Ardelt’s categories of “reflective” and “affective.” I didn’t ask the kinds of questions she includes under “cognitive” – but I can see how they reflect wisdom as well.

So, how wise am I, according to her scorecard? Well, I took her “test” twice, and the second time I was more honest about myself – and my score was lower. It’s easy to figure out the “right” answers; you could probably get a full score if you tried. (For those of you who aimed for an 800 on your SATs!) But the point is to do a realistic assessment of your own level of wisdom. Suffice it to say, I could be a lot wiser than I am! And that’s why I’m on this journey with you.

If you want to check out your own level of wisdom – and get a sense for the kinds of questions that measure wisdom - check out Professor Ardelt’s scorecard. It was published in The New York Times in 2007 and is available here:

Let me know how you do!

New blog: Seek wisdom in the ordinary


Today I am announcing an exciting new step in my new wisdom project - an interactive online discussion!

Please check out my new blog,  In it, I will interview wise women I admire  - and ask readers to interview wise people they know. Together, we will find fascinating insights into how to improve our relationships, understand ourselves, and make the world a better place. Together, we can become deeper, thoughtful, and more intentional about how we live, with guidance from ordinary people who have grown from their mistakes.

The end goal: a second book of wise insights, this time with your input.

Will you join me in this journey?

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