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Wisdom: An Emergent Property Rooted in Biology

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 27, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Economists and psychologists studying human contentment have found a recurrent pattern in countries across the world. People report that life satisfaction declines in the first couple of decades of adulthood, hits bottom around age 50, then rises with age, often above the levels people felt in their 20s. The pattern, which emerges with regularity in large data sets, is called the U-curve of happiness.

Jonathan Rauch, in a provocative article in The Atlantic, describes recent research, interviews the social scientists who conducted it, and presents an intriguing possibility: there may be some underlying pattern of life satisfaction that is independent of economic status, work and career achievement and personal relationships. He says David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick found the U-curve in 55 of 80 countries where people were asked about their general life satisfaction. The nadir was, on average, age 46. Other researchers who conducted surveys in 80 countries found a similar curve and the average age of rock bottom dissatisfaction was 50. Examining statistics from 27 European countries, Blanchflower and Oswald found that antidepressant use peaks in the late 40s, and that being middle aged nearly doubles the likelihood that a person will take antidepressants.

Oswald and four other scientists, including two primatologists, even found a U-curve over time in the state of mind of chimpanzees and orangutans. Zoo keepers, animal researchers and caretakers were surveyed about the well-being of more than 500 captive primates in five countries and reported that well-being was at its lowest in ages that would be comparable to ages 45 to 50 in people. So biology may play some part in middle age doldrums.

The good news is the upswing on the U-curve when studies show people tend to become more optimistic as they age. Rauch points to research by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and others who say "the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade." Carstensen told Rauch that as people age, their time horizons get shorter, they focus more on the present, and their goals tend to be more concerned with meaning and savoring the moment. They pay less attention to regrets and unmet desires.

Rauch also interviewed Dilip V. Jeste, a psychiatrist with multiple titles at University of California at San Diego, who has studied the aging brain to find clues for how people age successfully even with the onset of chronic health conditions that might be expected to make them depressed. Jeste explains that as a native of India he grew up in a culture steeped in respect for wisdom, and concepts about wisdom, he says, are remarkably constant across time and geography. The traits of the wise, Rauch summarizes, include empathy, compassion, good social reasoning, tolerance of diverse views, and comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Jeste sees wisdom as an emergent property of many other functions, with its roots in biology and evolution. Wisdom gives societal function to people who are no longer fertile. He's also looking for clues in neuroscience. While the science of wisdom is in its infancy, Jeste suspects age may change the human brain in ways that make wisdom easier.

So if you're experiencing mid-life distress, take heart in the likelihood that the future will get better.

As Andrew Oswald observes in a New York Times story, "It's a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80s than we were in our 20s. And it's not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It's something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this." Read Rauch's piece here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  neuroscience 

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