Don't Underestimate the Wisdom, Judgment of Your Elders

By Philip Chard, Journal Sentinel

Age and wisdom actually do go together ... usually.

Despite research supporting this assertion, most of us believe otherwise. The myth of the doddering old fogey is a pervasive, if often subconscious, bias, one that diminishes a valuable resource in our midst.

Studies show that, while not universal (one need only consider Congress), age conveys wisdom, which is defined as "the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment." In older folks, this comes in several forms.

First, elders are generally better at focusing on positive emotions and are less prone to emotional hijacking. Usually, they simply don't react as strongly or as impulsively when facing adversity, threats or irritations.

Another distinction is their capacity to make thoughtful decisions. This ability arises from the sheer accumulation of experiences. The longer you live, the more opportunities to learn from both successes and miscues.

Keeping one's cool and having an extensive library of learning experiences can improve overall judgment — not judgment about the minutia and logistics of daily life, but more in relation to bigger picture items.

An elder may not be able to help you choose the best smartphone, but if a younger person is struggling with relationship concerns, self-esteem, career confusion or another "how to live my life" issue, older folks can usually offer useful input and ask the right questions. Mental myopia is a common challenge in youth, and elders, having accumulated more existential mileage, can often provide a longer view.

Finally, as we age, our capacity to focus on what is worthwhile ramps up. Elders are better at distinguishing what is meaningful and essential in life from the small stuff that preoccupies many of us during our younger years.

Now, clearly growing older does not automatically convey wisdom. Just as there are young people who are wise for their years, so too are there old folks who never grew up or who harbor a dysfunctional personality.

What's more, possessing a modicum of wisdom does not preclude one from losing it on occasion or making bad decisions. Infallible wisdom is a divine attribute, not a human one.

Still, research suggests that real gains in wisdom usually emerge in one's 50s, and, absent any neurological or personality dysfunction, increase with advancing age.

Unfortunately, much of this valuable judiciousness goes to waste. Compared with other cultures, we devalue and underutilize the sagacity of our elders, which is a shame. If you want to learn a new skill, you apprentice yourself to a master. Well, some elders are life masters. They've experienced enough of what existence offers, good and bad, to provide valuable guidance and insight.

How do you know if an elder has wisdom? She or he will ask more questions than offer answers, will coach rather than command, and, most important, will deny being all that smart. Humility is a defining characteristic of the wise.


Well, as author Brian Rathbone rightly noted, "Wisdom is the reward for surviving our own stupidity."

Philip Chard is a psychotherapist, author and trainer. Email Chard at or visit

Read the article: Chard, P. (2015, Jan. 3). Don't underestimate the wisdom, judgment of your elders. Journal Sentinel.

Filed under:
Join the Network    
Users are able to post wisdom-related news & publications, maintain a profile, and participate in discussion forums.