Abstract Objectives This study examined the development of wisdom within the context of difficult life events (DLEs), and the importance of individuals and their social environments in this process of growth. Social support has long been studied in adulthood, yet less is known about the ways social transactions can promote wisdom. Method Semi-structured interviews were conducted with men (n = 14) and women (n = 36), ages 56–91 years (M = 71.71; SD = 8.8) who described a DLE and how they coped with it. The analysis was guided by constructivist grounded theory. Results DLEs included those from childhood through later life. When personal meaning was disrupted by adversity, the social environment played a key role in facilitating new perspectives that corresponded with aspects of wisdom: self-knowledge, compassion, comfort with uncertainty, and accepting complexity. Discussion Wisdom is often studied as an individual characteristic, but this study highlighted the relevance of a social ecological perspective to understanding how wisdom development is also facilitated through social transactions. Life events, Meaning, Post-traumatic growth, Stress-related growth How does a person become wise? Wisdom is thought to develop from the accumulation of experiences and knowledge (Chen, Wu, Cheng, & Hsueh, 2011), yet not everyone who has experience is wise. What makes the difference? Wisdom may develop as a result of coping with difficult circumstances (Aldwin & Levenson, 2004; Glück & Bluck, 2011; Weststrate & Glück, 2017), but gaps remain in our understanding of what facilitates wisdom development following adversity. There are many theories concerning the development of wisdom, partially due to the varying definitions of wisdom. In the psychological literature, there have been three basic approaches to this definition, including general wisdom (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000), personal wisdom (Staudinger & Glück, 2011), and self-transcendence (Curnow, 1999; Levenson, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005). General wisdom involves having factual knowledge and strategies about life that can be used to give advice regarding life problems. Personal wisdom refers to insight and understanding into oneself (Staudinger, 2013). Transcendent wisdom also involves learning about oneself, but self-knowledge is seen as only the first step in eliminating self-delusions so compassion towards oneself and others can develop (Curnow, 2011). Ardelt’s (2003) “three-dimensional” model of wisdom seeks to combine some of these perspectives, focusing on cognition, reflection, and affect. The related fields of post-traumatic growth (PTG; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) and stress-related growth (SRG; Aldwin & Levenson, 2004; Park, Aldwin, Fenster, & Snyder, 2008) may provide insight into wisdom development. Guided by ecological models of resilience that describe the dynamic transactions between individuals and their environments (Aldwin & Igarashi, 2012; Ungar, 2011) and a constructivist grounded theory (CGT) approach to analysis (Charmaz, 2014), we explored facilitative processes that included a difficult life event (DLE), individual factors, and social-environment influences. Difficult Life Events as Facilitators of Wisdom Development DLEs are thought to promote wisdom when situations “force individuals to reconsider and reevaluate how they see themselves and the world” (Staudinger & Bowen, 2010, p. 256). Theories of PTG (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995) similarly view a person’s struggle with a highly challenging life event to potentially result in personal transformations such as changes in self-perception and life philosophy (Joseph, Linley, & Harris, 2005) because the traumatic event challenges the individual’s “assumptive world”—a personalized set of expectations and orientation towards the world (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). Discordance between prior and current perceptions is thought to prompt dialectic thinking about self-concept, beliefs about the world, and life goals (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Theories of SRG (Park et al., 2008) posit that exposure to chronic and everyday stressors can also result in transformative growth. Webster and Deng (2015) found a relationship between stress, PTG, wisdom, worldview, and interpersonal strengths in young adults; however, the processes involved in facilitating wisdom remain unclear. Individual Factors Individual characteristics, including traits, beliefs, motivations, and values, are also important in the development of wisdom within the context of DLEs. The MORE Life Experience Model (Glück & Bluck, 2013) posits that core personal resources (i.e., a sense of mastery, openness, reflectivity, and emotion regulation/empathy) are necessary to make use of life experiences in wisdom-enhancing ways. Reflectivity, the ability to be introspective and look at the complexities of life, is a necessary precursor to achieving high levels of wisdom (Glück & Bluck, 2013). Staudinger and Bowen (2010) theorized that older adults tend not to engage in growth- promoting self-reflection, unless forced to do so by circumstances; adjustments to maintain or pursue well-being and quality of life are more common. This preference may reflect the positivity bias noted in older adults (Charles & Carstensen, 2007), or a long-standing tendency to seek well-being that is more hedonic than eudaimonic in tone (Friedman & Ryff, 2012). Hedonic well-being emphasizes a mindset of positive emotions and experiences (Joseph & Hefferon, 2013). From a eudaimonic perspective, life satisfaction comes from seeking meaning or purpose in life that inherently involves considering life in a complex manner (Joseph & Hefferon, 2013). Although these are not mutually exclusive orientations, thoughts, and behaviors that promote feeling good may suppress negative emotions and limit opportunities for self-reflection. Sociocultural Influences Separating individuals from the sociocultural environment that influences worldviews is difficult (Miyamoto, Ma, & Petermann, 2014). A social ecological approach involves both the informal community and formal institutions, which both generate meaning (Stokols, 2017). Levitt (1999) explored wisdom development with Tibetan monks and found that all respondents believed wisdom could not be developed by oneself, but required the influence and support of others such as teachers, family, friends, and the community. Through interactions with others, the monks learned about behavior, values, and morals. Similarly, Janoff-Bulman (2004) theorized that individuals needed to interact with the external world to rebuild their life philosophy after a trauma, yet little was said about how this occurs. Depressive symptoms in men who were victims of childhood sexual abuse were moderated by having people with whom one could confide (Easton, Kong, Gregas, Shen, & Shafer, 2017), but to our knowledge, no studies have explored in detail how the sociocultural environment facilitates wisdom development following adversity. Present Study The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the process of wisdom development using semi-structured interviews with 50 older adults who retrospectively described their coping following a DLE. An inductive analytic approach was taken to identify details of the processes in the development of wisdom. As a result of the initial, inductive analysis, the study’s goal was refined to examine if, and how, DLEs promoted wisdom development through processes involving disrupted personal meaning and social transactions. Method Sample and Procedure A convenience sample was recruited from an adult education group via email announcing a study on successful aging, approved by the Institutional Review Board. Participation was open to community-dwelling adults aged 55 years and older based on the assumption that adults at midlife and older would have experienced one or more substantive DLEs. Interested individuals attended an initial meeting to review informed consent documents and receive a take-home questionnaire. Interviews were conducted at a second meeting either at the participant’s home or the university. No compensation was offered. Participants included 14 men and 36 women ranging in age from 56 to 91 years (M = 71.71; SD = 8.8). Nearly all were non-Hispanic Whites, highly educated, and over half were currently married. A majority reported an on-going physical illness/condition; however, most reported few or no functional limitations with moderate activities (See Table 1). Table 1. Sample Characteristics (N = 50) Characteristics n % Age < 75 years old 31 62 Gender Women 36 72 Men 14 28 Ethnicity Non-Hispanic White 49 98 Other 1 2 Education attainment HS/some college 8 16 Credential/bachelors 8 16 Masters 25 50 Doctorate 9 18 Marital status Married 28 56 Divorced 6 12 Widowed 15 30 Never married 1 2 Annual income $10,000–29,000 6 12 $30,000–49,999 14 28 $50,000–74,000 18 36 $75,000–100,000+ 11 22 Self-reported health Fair–good 17 34 Very good 22 44 Excellent 11 22 Current physical illness Yes 31 62 No 19 38 Functional health Limited a lot 6 12 Limited a little 11 22 No limitations 33 66 Characteristics n % Age < 75 years old 31 62 Gender Women 36 72 Men 14 28 Ethnicity Non-Hispanic White 49 98 Other 1 2 Education attainment HS/some college 8 16 Credential/bachelors 8 16 Masters 25 50 Doctorate 9 18 Marital status Married 28 56 Divorced 6 12 Widowed 15 30 Never married 1 2 Annual income $10,000–29,000 6 12 $30,000–49,999 14 28 $50,000–74,000 18 36 $75,000–100,000+ 11 22 Self-reported health Fair–good 17 34 Very good 22 44 Excellent 11 22 Current physical illness Yes 31 62 No 19 38 Functional health Limited a lot 6 12 Limited a little 11 22 No limitations 33 66 View Large Table 1. Sample Characteristics (N = 50) Characteristics n % Age < 75 years old 31 62 Gender Women 36 72 Men 14 28 Ethnicity Non-Hispanic White 49 98 Other 1 2 Education attainment HS/some college 8 16 Credential/bachelors 8 16 Masters 25 50 Doctorate 9 18 Marital status Married 28 56 Divorced 6 12 Widowed 15 30 Never married 1 2 Annual income $10,000–29,000 6 12 $30,000–49,999 14 28 $50,000–74,000 18 36 $75,000–100,000+ 11 22 Self-reported health Fair–good 17 34 Very good 22 44 Excellent 11 22 Current physical illness Yes 31 62 No 19 38 Functional health Limited a lot 6 12 Limited a little 11 22 No limitations 33 66 Characteristics n % Age < 75 years old 31 62 Gender Women 36 72 Men 14 28 Ethnicity Non-Hispanic White 49 98 Other 1 2 Education attainment HS/some college 8 16 Credential/bachelors 8 16 Masters 25 50 Doctorate 9 18 Marital status Married 28 56 Divorced 6 12 Widowed 15 30 Never married 1 2 Annual income $10,000–29,000 6 12 $30,000–49,999 14 28 $50,000–74,000 18 36 $75,000–100,000+ 11 22 Self-reported health Fair–good 17 34 Very good 22 44 Excellent 11 22 Current physical illness Yes 31 62 No 19 38 Functional health Limited a lot 6 12 Limited a little 11 22 No limitations 33 66 View Large Materials In semi-structured interviews, participants were asked to identify a difficult or challenging life event, to describe how they coped, and if that experience changed their outlook or actions in life (Aldwin, Sutton, & Lachman, 1996; Le, 2008; see online Supplementary Appendix 1). Participants selected a DLE from any time in their lives to be unhindered in their choice. Interviews were taped, transcribed verbatim, and non-consequential information was changed to guard against the inadvertent identification of participants. Interviews were conducted by two women, about 30 years old, who had professional experience in interviewing, and had undergone training for this study. Data Analysis Constructivist grounded theory (CGT; Charmaz, 2014) guided the analysis. This approach attempts to advance theory construction through an inductive, data-driven analysis in which the respondent’s meanings, intentions, process, and actions are used to create emergent codes. This contrasts with other approaches that use pre-determined codes based on extant theories to analyze interviews (See Charmaz, 2014). An iterative process of open coding, memo writing, and comparing this information across all interviews determined the final coding structure. Initially, statements or labels that captured the respondent’s meaning and action were created from fragments of the interview (i.e., words, lines, segments). Throughout the analysis, similarities and differences between respondents were examined to draw comparisons between interview data, emerging codes, and concepts. Codes were refined based on the most substantive, conceptually rich, and often, the most frequent initial codes. The final, yet always tentative, coding structure resulted from returning to the original transcripts to verify that codes were supported by the interviews and reflected the respondents’ meaning (see Supplementary Appendix 2). Weekly meetings were held to discuss coding and issues of subjectivity that could influence the analysis including awareness of preconceptions influenced by personal experiences, beliefs, and theoretical orientations. The first author (HI) and the principal investigator of the research project (MRL) coded the interviews. Coders were older adults of different genders and ethnicities. Analysis was assisted using Dedoose Version 6.1.18 (Dedoose, 2016). Results Our analysis about the potential for wisdom development following a DLE is presented in two sections. First, using the entire sample, we described the importance of the psychological impact of the event, and how differences in the disruption to a person’s sense of self and worldview influenced the process that followed. Second, we focused on the respondents who described disruptions to personal meaning (n = 32), and illustrated how transactions with their social environments influenced their discovery of new meaning as aspects of wisdom. Difficult Life Events and Disruption of Meaning Respondents quickly identified a DLE, suggesting the salience of such events over time. Events were described in detail with spontaneous appraisals of stress severity and meaning disruption (see Table 2). The most frequently cited event was death of a close other, with the remainder spread among family, work, and health-related issues. Descriptions of disruptions to personal meaning were consolidated into three codes: (1) little to no questioning of meaning; (2) clarifying meaning; and (3) challenging meaning. Table 2. Event Type and Meaning Disruption (N = 50) Event Type Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Total Death of close other 4 1 14 19 Work/retirement 6 1 2 9 Divorce/breakup 1 — 4 5 Family conflict — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (others) 2 1 4 7 Health and safety concerns (self) — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (joint) — — 2 2 Subtotal 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) Men (n = 14) 7 (50%) 1 (7%) 6 (43%) Women (n = 36) 6 (17%) 4 (11%) 26 (72%) Event Type Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Total Death of close other 4 1 14 19 Work/retirement 6 1 2 9 Divorce/breakup 1 — 4 5 Family conflict — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (others) 2 1 4 7 Health and safety concerns (self) — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (joint) — — 2 2 Subtotal 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) Men (n = 14) 7 (50%) 1 (7%) 6 (43%) Women (n = 36) 6 (17%) 4 (11%) 26 (72%) View Large Table 2. Event Type and Meaning Disruption (N = 50) Event Type Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Total Death of close other 4 1 14 19 Work/retirement 6 1 2 9 Divorce/breakup 1 — 4 5 Family conflict — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (others) 2 1 4 7 Health and safety concerns (self) — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (joint) — — 2 2 Subtotal 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) Men (n = 14) 7 (50%) 1 (7%) 6 (43%) Women (n = 36) 6 (17%) 4 (11%) 26 (72%) Event Type Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Total Death of close other 4 1 14 19 Work/retirement 6 1 2 9 Divorce/breakup 1 — 4 5 Family conflict — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (others) 2 1 4 7 Health and safety concerns (self) — 1 3 4 Health and safety concerns (joint) — — 2 2 Subtotal 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) Men (n = 14) 7 (50%) 1 (7%) 6 (43%) Women (n = 36) 6 (17%) 4 (11%) 26 (72%) View Large Little to no questioning of meaning: “I usually don’t belabor these things.” Respondents (n = 13) described confidence in how to proceed despite the severity of the event. Work or retirement-related issues accounted for around half of the life events in this category, but death of loved ones also figured prominently. Two forms of certainty were expressed: those who described using their intelligence, self-control, and planning to solve their problems, and those who accepted what could not be changed. Both perspectives involved little questioning. When Fred (id50) learned that his wife wanted a divorce, he thought: “logically there’s a way to work through this and that’s the way I attacked the problems.” Jane (id11) also did not question her worldview even though the death of her daughter was “the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Jane’s ability to accept her daughter’s death might reflect a worldview shaped by earlier life events, similar to Anne (id19), who experienced the death of her father and aunt when she was a young adult: “I got more philosophical about learning that life has to go on.” Clarifying meaning: “A moment of grace.” The fewest respondents (n = 5) described how a specific value or belief was clarified as a result their DLE. These individuals are distinguished from those in the previous category because their situations prompted an acute awareness and commitment to ideas that had previously been unarticulated or perfunctory. Facing emergency surgery, Barbara (id23) could not be a “hypocrite” by accepting the last rites of a religion she had rejected. She had been afraid to tell her family but “really had to take a stand.” She described the “moment of absolute clarity” when she sent away the priest and acted on her belief that she would be “absolutely accepting of whatever would happen.” The insight afforded by this event was viewed as “a gift.” Challenging meaning: “It made me reflect back onto myself.” A majority of respondents (n = 32) described disruptions to their sense of competence, feelings of safety and predictability, and understandings of their world. DLEs were from all categories but death of a loved one was most frequent. Karen (id12) described her confusion when she “came unglued” after the unexpected death of her husband: “I could take care of anything … but I was not as self reliant as I thought.” Some questioned their assumptions of life as safe, predictable, and within their control. Sally (id32) saw herself as a “fixer” and “controller” but her sister’s terminal cancer conflicted with her worldview: “This could not be fixed or controlled, so it was a realization.” Challenges to fundamental beliefs created a void until new meaning could be established as with Janet (id40) who “lost [her] faith in God” when her husband died. Using the Social Environment to Discover Meaning Transactions with the social environment emerged as the process used by all respondents following their DLEs (see left side of Table 3). Questions regarding social transactions (STs) were not asked yet a wide range of actions was described spontaneously. These were consolidated into nine codes: (1) enlisting help; (2) rallying around; (3) being held and holding; (4) receiving unwanted support; (5) contrasting self with others; (6) seeking expert advice; (7) seeking similar others; (8) making new connections; and (9) learning from society at large. Some individuals recounted multiple types of STs over time such as initial support from family followed by seeking expert advice. Participants were given a single code based on the centrality of that transaction in their narrative of growth and discovered meaning, characterized by detail, causal connection, and emphasis. Table 3. Frequency of Social Transactions by Meaning Disruption and Discovered Meaning Categories Meaning Disruption Categories (N = 50) Among Those Who Experienced Challenging Meaning: Discovered Meaning Categories (n = 32) Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Social Transactions Knowing Oneself Developing Compassion Comfort with Uncertainty Accepting Complexity 6 1 1 Enlisting help 1 — — — 4 — 7 Rallying around 1 5 1 - — — 3 Being held and holding 1 1 — 1 — — 2 Receiving unwanted support 2 — — — — 1 4 Contrasting self with others 4 — — — 1 1 5 Seeking expert advice 1 — 2 2 1 1 7 Seeking similar others 5 1 1 — 1 — 1 Making new connections 1 — — — — 1 2 Learning from society 1 — — 1 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) 17 (53%) 7 (22%) 4 (13%) 4 (13%) Meaning Disruption Categories (N = 50) Among Those Who Experienced Challenging Meaning: Discovered Meaning Categories (n = 32) Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Social Transactions Knowing Oneself Developing Compassion Comfort with Uncertainty Accepting Complexity 6 1 1 Enlisting help 1 — — — 4 — 7 Rallying around 1 5 1 - — — 3 Being held and holding 1 1 — 1 — — 2 Receiving unwanted support 2 — — — — 1 4 Contrasting self with others 4 — — — 1 1 5 Seeking expert advice 1 — 2 2 1 1 7 Seeking similar others 5 1 1 — 1 — 1 Making new connections 1 — — — — 1 2 Learning from society 1 — — 1 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) 17 (53%) 7 (22%) 4 (13%) 4 (13%) View Large Table 3. Frequency of Social Transactions by Meaning Disruption and Discovered Meaning Categories Meaning Disruption Categories (N = 50) Among Those Who Experienced Challenging Meaning: Discovered Meaning Categories (n = 32) Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Social Transactions Knowing Oneself Developing Compassion Comfort with Uncertainty Accepting Complexity 6 1 1 Enlisting help 1 — — — 4 — 7 Rallying around 1 5 1 - — — 3 Being held and holding 1 1 — 1 — — 2 Receiving unwanted support 2 — — — — 1 4 Contrasting self with others 4 — — — 1 1 5 Seeking expert advice 1 — 2 2 1 1 7 Seeking similar others 5 1 1 — 1 — 1 Making new connections 1 — — — — 1 2 Learning from society 1 — — 1 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) 17 (53%) 7 (22%) 4 (13%) 4 (13%) Meaning Disruption Categories (N = 50) Among Those Who Experienced Challenging Meaning: Discovered Meaning Categories (n = 32) Little to No Questioning Clarifying Meaning Challenging Meaning Social Transactions Knowing Oneself Developing Compassion Comfort with Uncertainty Accepting Complexity 6 1 1 Enlisting help 1 — — — 4 — 7 Rallying around 1 5 1 - — — 3 Being held and holding 1 1 — 1 — — 2 Receiving unwanted support 2 — — — — 1 4 Contrasting self with others 4 — — — 1 1 5 Seeking expert advice 1 — 2 2 1 1 7 Seeking similar others 5 1 1 — 1 — 1 Making new connections 1 — — — — 1 2 Learning from society 1 — — 1 13 (26%) 5 (10%) 32 (64%) 17 (53%) 7 (22%) 4 (13%) 4 (13%) View Large For those who struggled with challenges to their worldview (n = 32), STs facilitated the discovery of new meaning. Respondents were asked if their DLE had changed their outlook or actions in life, and responses were consolidated into four codes: (1) “knowing oneself” involved gaining insights into identity, personality, and beliefs; (2) “developing compassion” encompassed greater tolerance, concern, and sensitivity towards others; (3) “being comfortable with uncertainty” was demonstrated by engaging in the present, letting go of beliefs of control, and embracing the idea of an unknown future; and (4) “accepting complexity” involved shift seeing life as a complex mixture of positive and negatives that defied categories such as “good” and “bad” (see right side of Table 3). These were inductive, data-based codes that remarkably corresponded with various definitions of wisdom. Ten individuals described two types of discovered meaning, predominately including “knowing oneself” (online Supplementary Appendix 3) but were given a single code based on the focus of their narrative of new meaning. In the following section, we illustrate how the personalized meaning disruption of a DLE and experiences with STs influenced the discovery of wisdom-oriented meaning. For some, insight was nearly instantaneous, but most experienced a deliberate process of experiential observations, questions, and reflections. Enlisting help: “I had a job that would allow me time to study.” Requesting specific help from one’s social network was most often used when a DLE did not arouse questions of meaning. Sam (id31) was similar to others who resolved their DLE with instrumental help, but unique in experiencing “humility” and doubting his “self-worth.” Sam feared he would be fired after failing his bar exam, but his employer kept him on and even provided time to study. He described gaining “greater insight” that he carried throughout life: “I tend to overvalue what I know and what I can do and there’s no substitute for hard work.” Rallying around: “We had the most wonderful friends.” Unsolicited emotional support and assistance from friends, family, and strangers left lasting impressions. Respondents in this group reported never needing help from others before, consequently “getting over our independence enough to accept help” (Beth, id33) created novel experiences of humility, connections with others, and compassion. Melanie (id1) blamed herself for the house fire that killed her pets, yet strangers offered support without judgment: “It made me see into the hearts of other people.” The compassion she experienced helped Melanie “not to be judgmental about other people” and to forgive herself. Being held and holding: “I think we cried all night.” When a DLE was experienced with a friend or family member, the shared event provided a unique space to explore difficult issues with mutual support. John (id2) and his childhood friend grieved over the unexpected death of John’s father. They cried and told stories about his compassion, tolerance, and humility. John questioned his own approach to life as a “cocky son of a bitch” and started to make decisions through the eyes of his father: “What would he do?” Self-awareness led to becoming “very compassionate” with his students. Robert (id10) shared his adult daughter’s false accusation of abuse with his wife. This allowed them to “deeply” examine this allegation together. Robert’s estrangement from his daughter was a “heavy sadness,” and although still estranged, he can now “treasure” the relationships he has with his wife, other children, and grandchildren by accepting the complexity of life: “Everything else is quite good but that sadness.” Instead of the world as “black and white,” he now sees “a lot of gray out there.” Receiving unwanted support: “My mother came and never went home.” Unsolicited assistance was sometimes unwelcomed, yet could push a person to address important issues. After the death of Karen’s husband, her mother (id12) thought her daughter “was not fit to be left alone.” The arrival of Karen’s mother sent a clear message: “It made me reflect back onto myself and say, why can’t I handle this situation?” Karen came to understand that her difficult bereavement was because she “depended almost entirely” on her husband for emotional support. When he was alive, she was “very happy all the time” but now tended to “take things more seriously” signaling a shift towards greater reflection and self-awareness. Contrasting self with others: “My wife and I deal with things quite a bit differently.” DLEs created unique situations that forced individuals to re-examine themselves and gain insights through comparisons with others. Following their son’s car accident, Steven (id5) “discovered” that he “was in total denial” and avoided issues by saying “everything’s going to be fine,” and “she was remodeling our house to accommodate a paraplegic.” Steven was challenged to face reality: “You learn about yourself and you learn about others when you have to face these things . . . to reflect on things.” Seeking expert advice: “He gave us good advice.” Individuals turned to experts for specialized information. This ST reflected a person’s mastery in finding sources, but was also indicative of a community’s assets. Amy (id41) needed facts from an expert in sexual violence before she could address the emotional aspects of her sister’s childhood abuse: “I’m a scientist so the first thing is to get more information.” Exposure to new information led to further explorations that broadened Amy’s perspective. Once Amy “understood more” she was able to see her sister with complexity and compassion: “Most of my adult life she’s just been crazy Janet but in understanding what happened it’s much easier for me to accept when people do things that I just think are totally off the wall.” Instead of judgment Amy now considers: “What’s happened to them…that’s made that seem like a good choice?” Seeking similar others: “I’ve compared notes with other people.” Respondents sought others who had experienced a similar life event. The affiliation with similar others can affirm a shift in identity (e.g., being a widow): “we were all in the same place in our life” (Patricia, id45). Similar others provided relevant emotional support and information more so than inexperienced others. Sarah (id20) had “lots of support” from family but joined a grief support group to “come to grips with a lot of stuff.” The exposure to new ideas and interactions with similar others supported deeper exploration, as with Dorothy (id26) who thought “deeply about things” for the first time: “What did I believe? Was it just something that I was taught as a child?” Mary’s (id16) group participation shifted her from being self-focused to feeling “more compassion.” This led to new actions: “I started looking outward, so just about anybody I know that has lost a spouse or a child, I reach out to.” Making new connections: “Meeting people in other cultures is a tremendous influence on how you live your life.” Unanticipated relationships emerged from coping with a DLE, which was transformative for Fran (id24). Before her husband’s death, Fran saw herself as an extension of her husband: “Mrs. Dr. Smith.” Fran needed to work to support her family, and her supervisor became an informal mentor in how a woman could approach life. Fran’s supervisor “showed a great deal of wisdom” by giving in “all manner of ways in the community,” and creating a positive work environment despite her own personal difficulties. Over time Fran “became Fran Smith, my own person,” and remained open to being influenced by others on how to live life through her travels. Learning from society at large: “The whole feminist movement was happening.” Respondents described an issue at the societal level that influenced their thoughts and behavior. Most people are influenced by their cultural milieu through exposure to media, books, and conversations; however, it is significant when an individual connects personal behavior to a social movement. Meg (id22) explained that she grew up in an era when women were considered “the helpmate.” When her world was disrupted by divorce, Meg credits Betty Freidan and the feminist movement for her ability to see herself as an important individual and more than the “little woman.” This perspective was extended to her “thoughtfulness” in how she raised her children, and her ability “to be content within [her]self.” Discussion This study explored how the social environment facilitated wisdom development within a context of adversity. Central to this process was the disruption of personal meaning caused by a life event, and the subsequent STs that supported the discovery of new meaning. This process was nuanced and individualized, yet four types of new meaning emerged that correspond with definitions of wisdom. Difficult Life Events Understanding the role of DLEs in wisdom development builds on the research in PTG (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Park, 2010; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004), and wisdom (Glück & Bluck, 2011; Staudinger, 2011; Weststrate & Glück, 2017). Our results suggested that the disruption of an individual’s perspective was critical to thinking more deeply, supporting theories that emphasize the importance of meaning and appraisal (Janoff-Bulman, 2004; Park, 2010). DLEs also elicited behavior from others (e.g., rallying around) that created powerful situations where feelings of compassion, humility, and connection were experienced, sometimes, for the first time. Through suffering, we understand our relationships to others—what we hold in common (Epstein, 2013). Individual Factors Aspects of the individual such as biographical history, timing of the event, and beliefs influenced if, and how a DLE challenged personal meaning. Consistent with the MORE model (Glück & Bluck, 2013), participants with mastery and openness found new ways to explore difficult feelings and thoughts that promoted greater self-knowledge. Yet, too great a sense of mastery risked limiting reflection as illustrated by those whose meaning was not challenged. Furthermore, geographic and social location could impact access to social resources that might prove transformative. The oldest respondent (id26) engaged in self-examination and eudaimonic pursuits for the first time when she joined a bereavement group at age 85. Age may be yet another aspect of the heterogeneity of individuals in understanding wisdom development. New Meaning as Wisdom Four aspects of wisdom were identified among individuals who faced disruptions to personal meaning. The most common was “knowing oneself,” a criterion found in most theories of wisdom, and central to Curnow’s (1999) model of wisdom. Although self-knowledge is not highlighted in Baltes’ general wisdom model, Staudinger (2011) theorized that insight into oneself (criteria of personal wisdom) has the potential to develop into general wisdom’s life insights. Respondents in this study did indeed expand the use of personal insights to assist others with their problems. The second form of wisdom was “developing compassion.” In Holliday and Chandler’s (1986) examination of lay definitions of wisdom, fairness, and compassion were among the most frequently cited characteristics of wise people. Ardelt (2011) included compassion in her wisdom model, and empathy is an important component of the MORE model of wisdom (Glück & Bluck, 2013). Two other wisdom components emerged, but with low frequency: “being comfortable with uncertainty” and “accepting complexity.” In Baltes and Staudinger’s (2000) model of general wisdom both were part of the meta-criteria of “recognition and management of uncertainty,” and in personal wisdom, part of “tolerance of ambiguity” (Staudinger, 2011). However, in our sample, meanings of complexity and uncertainty were differentiated. Individuals who became comfortable with uncertainty actively valued a present-focused life. Those who learned to accept complexity understood that complicated reasons might explain puzzling situations. This code is similar to “appreciation of perspectives broader than the issue at hand,” which Grossmann (2017) theorized as a component of wise thinking. Social Transactions as Facilitators of Wisdom These results highlighted the importance of the social environment in the development of wisdom—a process that has received limited attention in previous studies. Social support has been theorized to promote growth in the context of adversity (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004); however, the relationship between social support and growth was found in only half of the studies reviewed by Helgeson and Lopez (2010), suggesting a need for more nuanced understanding. This study, for example, found that seemingly contradictory STs facilitated developing self-knowledge; both seeking those who had experienced a similar life event and interacting with people different than oneself were avenues to awareness of assumptions and new ideas. STs also evoked feelings that supported wisdom development. Respondents experienced compassion from the unexpected kindness and generosity of others, and later practiced compassion towards others. Haidt (2003) described this as an experience of self-transcendent positive emotions that can predict prosocial behavior (Stellar et al., 2017). Broadening circles of concern (Templeton & Eccles, 2008) illustrated a respondent’s transition from personal insight to helping others. This shift from being a recipient of help to a helper of others was found with parents of pediatric cancer patients who, over time, provided support to other parents (Gage-Bouchard, LaValley, Panagakis, & Shelton, 2015). “Being comfortable with uncertainty” and “accepting complexity” were associated with seeking expert advice in the context of difficult and unusual problems. Trusting the expertise of others involved recognition of what was beyond one’s knowledge, similar to Grossmann’s (2017) “intellectual humility”—an aspect of wise thinking. Expanding one’s knowledge and understanding also came from macro-level or societal ideas. Gaining “comfort with uncertainty” was facilitated by expert advice, for example, in learning how to be present-focused with meditation skills or learning from similar others about loss. This study extended previous studies by illustrating highly individualized processes involved in wisdom development. Experiences created by new STs focused wisdom-promoting reflections, and this finding provides empirical support for Jones, Brown, Serfass, and Sherman (2014) proposal that novel, real-life situations following traumatic events should be examined as critical processes of growth. Blalock and colleagues (2014) similarly recommended attention to the heterogeneity of trauma-level and individual-level differences, including core personal values, in order to create innovative, “wise” post-traumatic interventions. Limitations The strengths of this study also created limitations. Respondents were asked to identify a DLE from any time in their lives and reported events from 2 to 50+ years ago. The unrestricted time span risked distortions in recall, however, restricting the DLE to the recent past might have eliminated events which disrupted meaning—an important facilitator of wisdom development in this study. There is the risk that retrospective data lacks veridicality (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2014), and is influenced by a positivity bias of age-related preferences for attending to and recalling positive events (see Charles & Carstensen, 2007). However, Brewin’s (2007) review showed that individuals’ memories for major life events are fairly veridical. Although respondents were of various incomes, their high education attainment, good health, and ethnicity (White) may have translated into greater access to resources. The use of grief support groups was important to bereaved respondents, but this resource might not be available to those in low-resource communities. The STs described by this sample maybe less relevant to socially isolated, highly stressed, populations. Conclusion How wisdom develops is a central question. While individual differences in the development of wisdom in response to adversity are acknowledged (Aldwin & Levenson, 2004; Glück & Bluck, 2011; Staudinger & Bowen, 2010), this study shows that the meaning of the event, and the subsequent social tranasactions play a critical role. Future research should expand beyond the impact of a single DLE to examine the interplay over time between life events, their social contexts, and meaning in the development of wisdom. Supplementary Material Supplementary data is available at The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences online. Funding This research was supported by an internal grant from the then College of Health & Human Sciences, and partially supported by the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University. Acknowledgements We thank the study participants, and Drs. Erica Srinivasan and Bethany Chamberlin for interviewing. 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The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 7, 2018
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