Hard-Earned Wisdom: Exploratory Processing of Difficult Life Experience Is Positively Associated With Wisdom

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Abstract

Laypersons and experts believe that wisdom is cultivated through a diverse range of positive and negative life experiences. Yet, not all individuals with life experience are wise. We propose that one possible determinant of growth in wisdom from life experience is self-reflection. In a life span sample of adults (N = 94) ranging from 26 to 92 years of age, we examined wisdom’s relationship to self-reflection by investigating “why” people report reflecting on the past (i.e., reminiscence functions) and “how” they reflect within autobiographical memories of difficult life events (i.e., autobiographical reasoning). We assessed wisdom using self-report, performance, and nomination approaches. Results indicated that wisdom was unrelated to the frequency of self-reflection; however, wiser people differed from others in their (a) reasons for reminiscence and (b) mode of autobiographical reasoning. Across 3 methods for assessing wisdom, wisdom was positively associated with exploratory processing of difficult life experience (meaning-making, personal growth), whereas redemptive processing (positive emotional reframing, event resolution) was positively associated with adjustment. This study suggests that developmental pathways in the wake of adversity may be partially determined by how individuals self-reflectively process significant life experiences.

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