Wisdom shaped by how you respond to difficult life events, study finds

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Ready for some sage advice? How you handle life’s trials and tribulations determines whether you later end up becoming wise, a new study finds.

Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) recently interviewed 50 older adults, aged 56 to 91, all of whom had experienced at least one difficult life event. The researchers’ objective was to learn more about how difficult experiences, such as loss of a loved one or financial turmoil, could shape wisdom.

Man sitting alone next to a treeParticipants were first asked to identify a single challenging life event. In detail, they were told to describe how they initially coped, along with how their outlook on life was forever changed.

“What we’re really looking at is ‘when bad things happen, what happens?’ The event can become a catalyst for changes that come afterward,” says Carolyn Aldwin, the director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at OSU, in a release. “One thing that stood out right away is that, when asked to think about a difficult life event or challenge, people had an answer right away. Difficult times are a way people define themselves.”

Of the 50 participants interviewed, the researchers were able to identify three distinct types of cognitive responses to adversity.

The smallest group — five participants — felt that the event strengthened a belief they’d already considered about the ways of the world, but hadn’t previously deeply explored.

Another group of participants, which included 13 individuals, was of the attitude that their difficult life event had not significantly influenced or shaped their outlook. These participants either accepted what happened without question, or used internal coping mechanisms to move past it.

The remaining 32 participants indicated that their experience did shape their outlook, leading them to reconsider their perspectives and philosophies about life. They felt the difficult life event disrupted their sense of personal meaning, forcing them to reflect on who they were.

“For these folks, the event really rocked their boat and challenged how they saw life and themselves,” says Aldwin.

In shaping change, one’s social environment was found to play an outsized role. This was the case even if an individual didn’t explicitly seek advice, or seemed to be aware of undue influence.

Unsought input from family, friends, and even strangers, could actually pay dividends, the researchers noted, as it could spur the development of greater compassion and humility.

Reentering society could also be aided in a social context, as interaction could help an individual formulate new ideas and gain a deeper understanding of their newfound perspective.

“It mattered whether a participant was expected to adjust to the event quickly and ‘get back to life,’ or whether they were encouraged to grow and change as a result of the event,” emphasizes Heidi Igarashi, the study’s lead author. “The quality of the social interactions really make a difference.”

Igarashi says the challenge for people struggling to come to terms with a rough patch in life is to make sure they’re connecting with the right support system to get them back on their feet and looking ahead in a positive direction.

The researchers published their findings last month in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.