Life Lessons at the End of Life
At the end of life, when death looms large, there can be a sort of final clarity. All the pretensions of life, its expectations, confusions, aggravations, disappointments, and more may fall away. Laura Carstensen has a name for it: “socioemotional selectivity.” Basically, it means that as one’s time on Earth shrinks, people become increasingly selective about what’s meaningful and how they should spend their dwindling days. You stop sweating the small stuff—and realize that most stuff is small. If you’re lying in a hospice bed with six months or less to live, most things no longer carry much or any import.
So what does? It’s a question my colleagues and I asked 21 men and women, ages 58 to 97, who were receiving hospice care for a terminal illness. How did they define wisdom? Had their perspective changed with time and circumstance?
All the participants believed prosocial attitudes and behaviors were a major component of wisdom, such as empathy, compassion, love, kindness, forgiveness, and respect. “I’ve never seen anybody who is self-centered who I can say is wise,” said one person.
Similarly, all the participants cited decision-making and knowledge of life as essential to wisdom. “I think a wise person goes and seeks counsel and looks for information before they just jump in and make a decision,” said one participant. “They weigh the consequences and the pros and the cons.”
And all the participants thought wisdom required a life of work and activity: “Life is not a bed of roses, you know. I’ve learned that you have to exert yourself . . . you have to work.”
Almost as universal were assertions that emotional regulation and positivity were critical: “Well, I do not think I am the wisest person, but I think wisdom is cultivating a happy attitude in your life; not necessarily based on having money, but being happy with just looking at the sky and appreciating nature and loving the people around you, and with that, I think you will have a very rich life.”
Workouts and Work-Arounds
With age, generally speaking, several components of wisdom become stronger, more refined, and second nature in many people. Despite a decline in fluid intelligence with age, social reasoning tends to improve, which includes the general ability to think abstractly, to identify patterns, discern relationships, and solve problems in the moment. Multiple neuroimaging studies have shown that older brains learn to compensate for the effects of advancing age. Different regions of the brain take up duties once performed elsewhere. Some circuitry grows bigger and stronger even as other circuitry weakens or shrinks. In other words, the older brain finds work-arounds.
Carstensen, the Stanford psychologist, has shown that in older age, with a growing awareness of limited time left in life, people tend to take greater emotional satisfaction from where they have been and spend less time fretting about where they think they must go.
“Young people are miserable at regulating their emotions,” Carstensen told Rauch, who subsequently recalled his own experience: “Years ago, my father made much the same point when I asked him why in his 50s he stopped having rages, which had shadowed his younger years and disrupted our family. He said, ‘I realized I didn’t need to have five-dollar reactions to nickel provocations.’”
Are IQ Tests Really Intelligent?
IQ tests measure general intelligence but not specific kinds like interpersonal skills, musical intelligence, or creativity. They do not assess character or practical know-how, and they tend to propagate the notion that people are born with an unchangeable endowment of intellectual potential that determines their success in life.
The bottom line is that standard IQ tests measure one kind of smart. Like SAT scores, they measure an important domain of cognitive functioning and are moderately good at predicting academic and work success, but that’s a decided limitation. The IQ doesn’t tell us anything about a person’s emotional regulation or compassion or self-reflection, all of which are integral to wisdom.
“A high IQ is like height in a basketball player,” said David Perkins, who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It is very important, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal. There’s a lot more to being a good basketball player than being tall, and there’s a lot more to being a good thinker than having a high IQ.”
Components of Wisdom
We get into the nitty-gritty: the key elements of wisdom, specifically compassion, emotional regulation, balancing decisiveness with acceptance of uncertainty, self-reflection, curiosity, sense of humor, and spirituality.
Every component of wisdom is important. A wise person may not possess all components in equal parts, but each component adds to a sum greater than its parts.
#1 Cultivating Compassion
Humankind seems to have an enormous capacity for savagery, for brutality, for lack of empathy, for lack of compassion. – Annie Lennox, singer-songwriter
Acts of compassion make us feel good. We are creatures of our feelings, moods, and emotions, which aren’t precisely synonymous. They drive our behaviors in ways obvious and not, equally powerful as both motivators and constraints.
A full and meaningful life, one wisely lived, involves judiciously managing our feelings, moods, and emotions. It means using them to our benefit (and to the benefit of others) in the right times, ways, and places. Don’t drive angry, the saying goes. Don’t live angry, either. Conversely, it’s not wise to spend your days giddily blind to harsh realities.
Anger. Fear. Joy. Disgust. Grief. These emotions and others direct us. They influence how we think and act. Finding a way to balance them, to give them free rein when necessary, but more often to conduct them appropriately for the best possible results is a lifelong endeavor.
#2 Emotional Regulation with Happiness
I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them. – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Emotional regulation training is broadly used in the treatment of a variety of disorders and conditions, including borderline personality disorder, a complex and severe condition characterized by impulsive actions and unstable relationships that usually first appears in adolescence. It tends to be a reliable predictor for other psychosocial dysfunctions later in life and related social impairment, poorer health, and lower life satisfaction.
There are three main strategies for improving emotional regulation:
- Cognitive Reappraisal. This is a deliberate, forceful effort to reinterpret the meaning of something. Let’s say you failed a test. Your first emotional response may be anger, sadness, dismay, and other negative emotions, but if you pause, step back, and reappraise the situation, the test results can be reinterpreted as a positive call to action, a challenge to be overcome through revised or renewed efforts. You look at where you went wrong on the test and then fix those errors. More importantly, it could help you prevent future failures.
- Some of the children in Mischel’s marshmallow tests used distraction. Research has found that when people change the focus of their attention, it can reduce the intensity of painful or emotional experiences and alleviate distress. For example, instead of focusing on something difficult or unpleasant, think about your loved one’s upcoming birthday party.
- When you recognize an emotion and give it a name, you can more easily control it and manage it more thoughtfully. Psychotherapists often use this technique. It’s not unlike fixing something at home. Once you’ve identified the problem—a leaky pipe or faulty electrical connection—you can figure out how to repair it or make it better.
The sixth-century Chinese poet Lao-tzu once said that “those who have knowledge, don’t predict. And those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” It’s a timeless and indisputably wise observation. Life is unpredictable, and prediction, joked Danish physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr some fifteen hundred years after Lao-tzu, is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.
#3 Balancing Decisiveness with Acceptance of Uncertainty
It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.- Elbert Hubbard, American philosopher
There may be almost as many ways to make a decision as there are decisions to be made. Broadly speaking, decision-making techniques can be lumped into two categories: group and individual.
Group decisions obviously involve more than one person. Some standards are voting (majority or plurality); finding a consensus, in which the majority determines a course of action with minority consent and input (avoiding winners and losers); the Delphi method
to develop our experts’ definition of wisdom; and participative decision-making, often used by organizations or authorities to engage members in the decision-making process.
Individuals have their own decision-making tools. Plato and Benjamin Franklin were both big fans of decisional balance sheets: writing down the pros and cons, benefits and costs of a choice. A solitary decider can choose between utility (what choice provides the greatest benefit or satisfies the most urgent need) and opportunity cost (what is the cost of not choosing an option). And there are the less refined alternatives of flipping coins, cutting decks of cards, doing the contrary to what everyone advises, or reading tarot cards—none of which seems very wise.
#4 Self-Reflection, Curiosity, and Humor
I have no particular talent. I am merely inquisitive. – Albert Einstein
Self-awareness appears to be rare among the world’s myriad species, and self-reflection seems to be limited to just one species—ourselves. It is the human capacity to see ourselves in a mental mirror and ponder what we see.
Self-reflection is the exercise of introspection, the examination of our own mental and emotional processes to better understand their fundamental nature, purpose, and essence. It’s a profoundly important and obvious element of wisdom. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” wrote Plato in The Apology of Socrates, a recollection of the speech his mentor gave at his ill-fated trial.
Reflection gives the brain time to pause, to untangle and sort through the myriad observations and experiences that wash over and through it every second of every waking hour—and perhaps in many sleeping hours as well. It provides time to consider multiple interpretations and create meaning, which in turn becomes learning and shapes our future thoughts and actions.
Self-reflection is critical to learning. Rather than simply go from task to task, humans can pause to review what they have done, the processes involved and the outcome, to extract new value or relevance and improve performance in the future.
Becoming Wiser Faster
A wise man changes his mind sometimes, but a fool never. To change your mind is the best evidence you have one.- Desmond Ford, Australian theologian
A lack of time is usually the first reason cited for why people can’t take a moment to reflect on their lives and selves, but there are other reasons: They may not know how. They may not like the process. They may think it’s not a good use of time, or they’re biased toward action.
Here are some tips to help you become more reflective:
- Identify important questions, but don’t try to answer them just yet.
- Find a reflection process that works for you. It could be writing down your thoughts, talking with a trusted friend, or long walks alone.
- Schedule time. It can start with as little as a few minutes each day. Then just do it. Go back to your questions. Think. Be still. Consider possibilities and perspectives. Look beyond the obvious. You don’t have to like or agree with what you’re thinking. You only need to examine it.
We are all burdened with egocentric biases. Nothing grabs our attention more than things that grab at ourselves, that affect us. One way to resolve truly difficult personal problems or dilemmas is to step away from yourself. Think about issues in the third person, or using your name rather than “I.” It’s something you do naturally when a family member or friend comes to you for advice. Do it for yourself. Think about a problem as if it were someone else’s, and then take your own best advice
#2 Empathy and Compassion
You can be wise without being funny or with varying degrees of decisiveness. You cannot be wise if you lack empathy and compassion—for others and for yourself. Compassion and self-compassion should be balanced.
The historian Jon Meacham has noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt possessed a remarkably robust ego, but it was tempered by “gifts of self-knowledge and a compassion for the plight of others, saving graces that enabled him to become one of a handful of truly great and transformative presidents.”
Roosevelt frequently shows up on lists of wise people. He was capable of bringing together and guiding a nation through the Great Depression and a world war (despite being constrained by a wheelchair for most of his adult life due to polio and Guillain-Barré syndrome). He led millions of people, and his example, in this context, should be obvious: if you do not possess an abiding affinity and appreciation for others, known and unknown, then you are alone—and lost.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation. “The past is already gone. The future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.”
Your brain is a vibrant, living, changing entity, and it possesses a singular ability—the capacity to understand, heal, and improve itself. Mindfulness is one of its methods, and it is frequently used in several types of wisdom-improving interventions.
#4 Prosocial Activities
Numerous studies have shown that acts of kindness promote happiness. Volunteering, for example, is one of the most meaningful prosocial activities a person can do, and it is strongly associated with life satisfaction. People who donate their time feel more socially connected, are happier, and live longer.
#5 Emotional Regulation
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the popular novel (and 2010 film) Eat Pray Love, once noted that “your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.” True enough, perhaps, but emotions aren’t fixed facts. They are flexible. It’s all about how you interpret them and your situation that gives them power.
You can use these as quick tricks to help keep your cool:
- Practice cognitive reappraisal. Make a deliberate effort to reinterpret the meaning of a distressing event. Maybe that other driver moving so erratically has a sick child in the back seat and is racing desperately to the hospital? That would be understandable. It doesn’t matter whether you actually know the reason for the other driver’s behavior, only that you now have a reason to let the perceived offense pass—safely.
- Distract yourself. Move your attention and thoughts elsewhere. Turn on the radio. Sing aloud. Comment on the pleasant weather to your passenger. Get your mind off of what irritates you and move on.
- Label what’s happening. If you’re angry, consciously tell yourself (and maybe your passenger) that you are angry and why. Often simply recognizing the emotion at play and giving it a name is enough to exert control over it.
A grateful heart is the beginning of greatness, said the late clergyman James E. Faust. It’s an expression of humility and the foundation of virtues like faith, courage, contentment, happiness, and well-being. We cannot be wiser if we are not wise to the blessings and gifts we already possess.
Among the most common and effective methods used to promote gratitude is to write about people, places, or things for which we are thankful. To be sure, it’s not for everybody (more about that in a moment), and it’s not the only way to achieve a greater appreciation of the blessings in life, but it is a relatively easy way to focus the mind and become more aware of blessings, which is often the best and fastest way to help them multiply.
#7 Openness to New Experience
Curiosity doesn’t kill; it thrills. Here are five ways to become more curious:
- Find what fascinates you. Cast a wide net. Something will catch your mind.
- Do things you don’t know how to do.
- Ask questions. There’s no such thing as a dumb question.
- Ask questions of people, not just Google.
- Don’t let boredom dictate your days. There’s always something you can do or learn.
#8 Alone Time
Set aside time for yourself. Alone time isn’t a sign of loneliness or disconnection. It’s needed time to get to know what you’re really thinking. Americans (and increasingly much of the rest of the world) spend far too much time paying attention to external distractions, like cell phones and Twitter feeds, rather than listening to their inner monologue. A 2017 survey by the research software firm dscout estimated the average American touched his or her smartphone—every tap, type, click, and swipe—2,617 times a day. Heavy users do it more than 5,400 times per day. That works out, according to some analyses, to roughly three hours per day staring at your phone.
There are better things to do with your time and brain.
#9 Physical Activity Interventions
Your mind works best when your brain is healthy.
It should come as no surprise that some of the most effective interventions for improving wisdom involve improving the health of the originating organ and of the body. The average weight of a human brain is approximately three pounds. For a 150-pound person, that’s just 2 percent of body weight. And yet, the brain uses up to 20 percent of the body’s total energy haul, mostly to fuel electrical impulses between neurons, but also for housekeeping and health maintenance.
To remain healthy, the brain relies on the rest of the body to be healthy. Not just as a reliable source of energy and nutrients, but because it just feels better. Exercise has an immediate and positive effect on mood. Even a single, 30-minute walk on a treadmill has been shown to lift the mood of a patient with major depressive disorder. In some cases, exercise is as effective as medication and potentially has longer lasting results.