Monika Ardelt

Monica Ardelt
Dr. Monika Ardelt, Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida and the 2008 Colonel Allan R. and Margaret G. Crow Term Professor. Image used with permission.

Topics and Timestamps

Alex Bishop

I am here with Dr. Monika Ardelt who is from the University of Florida. She is a gerontologist in the sociology department. If you don’t mind, please share a little bit about yourself, your current role, and how you came into gerontology or how, perhaps, gerontology or the field of aging found you.


Monika Ardelt

Well I have to correct you here, I am not a gerontologist I’m a life course researcher. And that makes a difference because I do focus on old age, but more as the last

chapter of a book. So I really like to look at the whole book, and the question is, “How did people end up in old age in the way they are?” And the way I in life satisfaction in old age. And from a sociologist, typically what they look at are these more objective factors like socioeconomic status. Of course this matters. Education, financial situation, subjective health matters a lot. How people feel about their health. But in the end, social integration, if they are integrated or lonely, but in the end, it cannot really explain a lot of the variants. Maybe with the exception of subjective health, but I thought there was something missing. And I was playing around with it, and I was thinking about coping, autonomy, but autonomy is one of the first things that goes if you get older and older.


And then it kind of occurred to me and was like “Oh, it’s wisdom!” But then I didn’t know…how would you measure wisdom? How would you approach it? And at this time I had a data set that I wanted to analyze. It was a longitudinal dataset from my dissertation that used data from the parents of the Berkeley Guidance Study kids that were followed up from their birth to really their whole life. But at the birth of these children, the parents were also interviewed. And then these parents were followed up forty years later. And my advisor Dr. [NAME] had this dataset. So I wanted to analyze this dataset and I needed to go to the library to find a book that explained how the follow-up data was collected. And so I went to the library and I got the book and right next to it was this Sternberg book on wisdom. It’s nature and development. It just came out. It was 1990. And I’m like “Wow, there are actually people who study this!” I had no idea! So of course I got the book and also I saw it as a sign, you know? This is a sign, you should study this. So I got the book and I read it. It’s an edited book so different people talking about what wisdom is, how to measure it. It was all over the place. There was no unifying definition of wisdom, but many of these chapters and authors referred to this chapter by [NAME], 1980. And so I went and got that and basically what Vivian Clayton, they did multidimensional scaling analysis of wisdom attributes. And they came up with this the three-dimensional wisdom model that wisdom is a combination, integration, of cognitive, reflective, and what they called affective (what I call now compassionate) dimensions because the compassionate dimension, it’s not just any effect. Any emotion. It’s actually compassion. And I thought “Well that makes sense.” Maybe it is not possible to measure wisdom directly but it should be possible to measure the cognitive, reflective, and the compassionate dimensions of wisdom.


So I looked at my dataset and lo and behold, I had ratings of personality characteristics. The Q-sort and [NAME] rating scale. And I selected items to measure the cognitive, reflective, and compassionate dimensions of wisdom. And it worked! They hang together and they predicted life satisfaction in old age. To a really strong degree. And so this is kind of what set me on this path, to study wisdom. And then when I came to the University of Florida as a faculty member, my faculty mentor suggested “Well why don’t you create a wisdom scale?” And so I got a little grant and started out creating this scale and this is how I ended up with the three-dimensional wisdom scale. And so, for me, getting into gerontology was really from this life course longitudinal perspective. I used to say I’m really not interested in older people, but I actually am. I really am, because it’s really fascinating to talk to older people about their life. Not just where they are right now, but also how did they arrive at the place they are now. And then all of them have a story behind it. So it’s not just random, who ends up in a good shape or not so good shape. It’s actually, there is a history that explains this. So, like, a history of taking care of your health. Taking care of your physical and your mental health, and developing wisdom throughout the lifetime. Wisdom doesn’t suddenly pop up in old age. It’s a developmental process that starts early in life and those who end up with wisdom in old age have developed wisdom throughout their life. And in your years of research and developing your measure, can you speak to the extent of what really… oftentimes people ask the question “What makes a person wise?” Have you been able to answer that question? Yes! The three-dimensional wisdom model!


The way I define it is exactly what makes a person wise if they have these three characteristics. If you think about what is wisdom, many people think about, first, wise people know something that other people do not know, right? And so this belongs to the cognitive dimension. But what they do know is not just what’s the latest research in quantum physics, right? So this is not the area of wisdom. The area of wisdom is about interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects of life. Basically, wise people know about themselves. They have engaged in self-reflection. They know who they are and they also know their weaknesses. But they also know how to interact with other people. So these are interpersonal aspects of life. And they know the deeper meaning of life. Why are we here, right? So they have a sense of meaning and purpose in life. To get to this cognitive deeper understanding of life, deeper meaning of life, to get to this requires a reflective dimension of wisdom. So the reflective dimension of wisdom, for me, is the process to get to the other two dimensions. So the reflective dimension, the way I define it, is basically looking at things and events or people from different perspectives. But also looking at yourself from a kind of third-person perspective. So this is where it requires self-examination, self-insight, and also being able to understand other people from different perspectives.


And then learning from that, getting insight from that, learning from experience belongs in that because everybody has experiences but not everybody learns from experiences. And to learn from experiences requires people to stop, stand still, and reflect on the experience: What does this mean, what can I learn from this experience? And that gets us then to people who learn from experience understand life better, understand other people better, understand oneself better, which goes to the cognitive dimension but also understand their own faults and weaknesses better. So basically, to understand that they, like anybody else, have their faults and weaknesses. And often, not-so-wise people have…it’s easy for them to see the faults and weaknesses in other people but not in themselves, right? And so if they, if wise people can see their own faults and weaknesses and can forgive themselves for it, have self-compassion, then they can extend this compassion to others as well. So actually the reflective dimension reduces ego-centeredness. Self-centeredness. And makes one more tolerant toward the faults and weaknesses of other people. And that, then leads to the compassionate dimension of wisdom. So people who have integrated cognitive, reflective, and compassionate components, this is what I would call a person wise.


Alex Bishop (10:12)

And when you think about aging and older adults, when you meet that person after 65, 70 plus years you talk about the narrative in stories that you’ve heard and you’ve studied, is it possible, do you think, that some people become wise beyond their years, so to speak? That perhaps they actually become wise or find wisdom before their time? Or perhaps maybe the opposite is possible, they never fully tap into their wisdom?


Monika Ardelt

Absolutely. Both are possible. [NAME] says how do people get wisdom? And he says there are two pathways and one is if if people encounter what he calls ultimate limit situations. These are these situations that, if they don’t kill you they make you stronger. Really traumatic events that can shatter one’s worldview and really require a re-arranging of priorities. And that can make people wiser. Or, really, they can also lead to absolute despair and depression. It could be both ways. But people who become wiser as a result of this, learn something from these experiences, that could be at any age. Absolutely any age. Even so, probably there needs to be a certain amount of intellectual maturity. But I would say, starting with formal operations, that would be already in place. Maybe not in really small children, but definitely adolescents can be wise. Particularly if they had to overcome trauma and learn from those experiences. Then on the other hand people who have experiences but never learn from it because they are so self-centered and they can only see the world through their own filter and do not see the other person’s perspective might never become wise. Experience is not enough; you have to learn from experience. So it’s these opportunities to learn from experience. So this is one of the things that he says is one pathway. I kind of disagree with him a little bit because I think any experience, any experience can make one wiser. It’s the little things. Somebody cuts you off in traffic, a famous example. How do you react to it? Our gut reaction is anger, right? But it’s OK, right? This person maybe had really to be somewhere or they can’t help it. And what does it matter? Just to deal with that makes you maybe a little bit wiser.


If you can not get riled off if somebody cuts you off in traffic. And I know it’s hard for me. And I’m still working on it. Sometimes I’m better than other times. But then other paths that [NAME] mentioned was meditation, actually. So have some kind of praxis, I would say, of reflection. Meditation could be one thing but it could also be therapy or writing your memoir, or journaling. I think any things that help you to reflect on experience are probably helpful to become wiser.


Alex Bishop (14:00)

And in your work, I know you’ve made a connection to the wisdom and human spirit sort of connection. Can you kind of elaborate a little bit on that? How is wisdom, how does it contribute to the human spirit?


Monika Ardelt

How do you define the human spirit?


Alex Bishop

How do you define it?


Monika Ardelt

No, how do you define it?


Alex Bishop

I think the human spirit, for me, would be thinking about kind of existential, more transcendent, qualities where you move beyond oneself. Right. And, really, thinking about life in a much deeper way that’s perhaps beyond this world even. How is wisdom kind of connected, do you think, to that process? Some people find it through religiosity, attending church or prayer, others find it through, as you mentioned, meditation more of a spiritual reflection.


Monika Ardelt

Yeah, that’s a good question particularly since you bring in religion. In some ways I think all religions, originally, were vehicles to make human beings wiser. I think that was the plan. If you think, you know, Jesus Christ, what does he say? He tries to make people wiser. Look at yourself first before you judge others. Buddha clearly trying to teach the meditation to make people wiser. Mormon. All of them, all of the religions, the idea is to make people wiser. The problem is if religion becomes dogmatic and then somebody says “Well all you need to do is just proclaim this or that or the other or just do these rites and rituals and you will be fine. It doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, as long as you proclaim this you will be fine.” It doesn’t work that way. At least not from where I’m sitting.


I think every religion is there to make a person wiser, to understand the deeper meaning of life. Why are we here? What is the deeper meaning? In the end all of religion, what they are saying, is try to become a little bit nicer. To be less self-centered. To love your neighbor, love God. what does God mean, right? Love everything. Love your neighbor. Hard enough, right? Who’s my neighbor, right? How do I love my neighbor? Well, become less self-centered. As long as a religion does this then I think it’s the same. Wisdom and religion are exactly the same. If it becomes dogmatic, then no, I think that they have split paths.


Alex Bishop (17:04)

Yeah, thank you for sharing. Kind of switching gears a little bit, across the years of research in your expertise on wisdom, have you encountered, or have that one discovery or finding, whether it’s focused on wisdom or maybe another topic, that’s intrigued you the most? Something that you’ve discovered that you think has advanced the field or the knowledge? Something, do you think… is there that one discovery or finding that you’ve had in your career that you think is pretty important. Pretty valuable.


Monika Ardelt

Well I tell you, what really, and that might be more personal other than the great discovery for the scientific community, but where I was really surprised about one of the findings is that self-centeredness is really toxic. And the way I found this is I had the good fortune that George Wayland made available this longitudinal dataset for some people and so I was selected as a senior positive psychology fellow and spent some time with George Wayland in Philadelphia one summer for six weeks. And as part of this we were allowed to use this Harvard dataset. This is a dataset of men that were first surveyed in, basically…examined their personality and everything, in the 1940’s. They all came from birth years 1919 to 1920. So they were examined as sophomores if they showed potential for greatness. I think this is how they were selected. The purpose of the study was to see how people, future leaders, how they develop.


But then when George Wayland took over the study it became just a really longitudinal study and these men have been followed until their death, really. And so every two years starting in the 1940’s, in the beginning they were studied intensively and then they every two years they were sent a questionnaire and every ten years, I think, somebody came and did qualitative interviews with them. And they had personality questionnaires at the age of 50, and then at the age of 80. And I used my three-dimensional wisdom model to select the items for the three dimensions of wisdom, and I looked at men that were high on these three dimensions at 50 and at 50, and then low in these dimensions at 50 and at 80. So really do an extreme case analysis comparison. And, not surprisingly, the exemplar that was really high on both. He just had a charmed life. He was always happy! He was full of optimism. He founded several businesses, he taught business students, but he didn’t have a perfect easy life. His father was an alcoholic. He got him into AA and helped him to come out of this. His first wife divorced him and he said “I’m happy she found the perfect mate! He was one of my best friends, I’m happy for them!” So he was, then he found another wife, a second wife, and they were perfect together and they lived until his death. So it doesn’t mean that he had, in terms of a charmed life, that there were no obstacles there. It was just for him, whatever obstacle he encountered, he was able to overcome it. And when he was asked in old age, in terms of how his psychological mood was, he was like “I’m happy! My whole life was great! My whole life was great!” Even though the father was an alcoholic, his wife divorced him. And he said “No my first wife I was blessed, I was blessed.” And his secret was that he cared about others. He really cared about others and tried to give to the next generation. He was teaching, he was advising, he was mentoring, he was involved in charities, foundations, all kinds of things and he had lots of energy because of that.


Now compare this to this other man who was low, low on the wisdom scale. He came to Harvard as a scholarship student. That meant that his parents were not rich. But he was smart enough to make it to Harvard. But because he came as a scholarship student he had low self-esteem. And he always felt that he wasn’t good enough, like these other folks. He had a successful career as an architect, he married a woman who was above his social standing. She was rich. He admired his mother-in-law who was, I think, one of the few people who was a career woman. But it was never enough. Whatever he had, it was never enough. And yes there were problems with his wife, and his wife was ill and eventually died, but he used people. Then he dated other women but didn’t get tied down until later in life, I think at 60 he married again to a widow that, again, was rich and was high in social standing. And it still wasn’t enough. It still wasn’t enough. He wanted even more. More social standing, more money. It was just never enough. And because of that he was miserable. His whole life was miserable. And that showed me that… being selfish. You always think “You know, selfish. Of course everybody’s selfish. So what?” No, it has real consequences. Being selfish has real consequences. And for this man it ruined his whole life. Even though objectively people would say…I mean, he was Harvard educated, he had a good career, he had a good job. (He didn’t like his job, though he had a good job. He chose it.) He had a rich wife high in social standing. Yes there was some misfortune but still, objectively, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t a bad life. And he was miserable his whole life. So being selfish has real costs. And that’s what I learned. Be careful. Don’t be selfish because it really has real costs. It ruins you. Being selfish ruins you. Being caring and giving rewards you. And these two men are exemplars of that.


Alex Bishop (24:40)

Yes, and as you mentioned earlier there’s some consequences to finding wisdom or looking back when you’re older and saying “This is what mattered most.”


Monika Ardelt

Right, absolutely.


Alex Bishop (24:52)

Now a final question just to kind of wrap things up. This course is really focused on finding out a little bit, and understanding the concept, of successful aging. This is a concept that’s been around for a while and it’s highly debated. What’s your perspective surrounding the Rowe and Kahn framework of successful aging? In other words, how do you define successful aging?


Monika Ardelt

Right, so Rowe and Kahn define successful aging, basically, as avoiding disease, right? Avoiding disease while staying mentally active, cognitively active, also staying socially active. Being involved in society in some ways. And if you look at this: no disease, staying involved in society, being cognitively/mentally intact, well that’s really what happens in midlife. So what they are saying is “Avoid aging. As long as you avoid aging you will be fine.” The problem with this definition of successful aging is that what happens to people who do get sick? Who do get disabled? Cognitive decline will be happening. I mean, we can’t…yes there are some things we can do but not completely. This is just biology. Eventually, even if you can avoid it…OK before, maybe, cognitive decline and physical decline have started to… in the 50’s, 60’s, maybe you eat right, you exercise, you exercise your gray cells, you do everything right. You can push it to 70, 80, you can push it to 80. But if you look at the statistics in the eighties, things start going downhill for at least a third of the population if they are not already dead. Then it really starts. Maybe with better nutrition and everything you can push it another ten years. Maybe 90. Well, what about then, right? I mean, the idea…what Rowe and Kahn have is kind of, you’re staying healthy in midlife and then you just drop dead. For most people this is not the case. For most people, there is a period of decline that they experience. And sometimes we think of people, “Oh they just dropped dead. These poor people.” Well maybe they weren’t poor because up to that point they were functioning quite well, right? But now what we are able to do is to keep people alive with chronic illness, with disability, with cognitive decline. But they still experience all this decline. So what does this mean? Now they are unsuccessful agers? We should give up on them? So this is why I don’t like successful aging. The term successful aging.


I like aging well. Now it might be semantics, but I think in terms of aging well, what does aging well mean? Aging well means to experience satisfaction with life, subjective well-being, happiness and contentment. Maybe not fleeting happiness but contentment. Even in old age, even if there is cognitive or physical decline and a shrinking of the social radius. And what my research has shown is that those who are high on wisdom, they actually for them, they can keep high in subjective well-being, even if they encounter physical decline. And so one other study that we did was we compared older people who lived in nursing homes or were diagnosed with a terminal illness, were on hospice, you know hospice means you are diagnosed with a terminal illness and you have a life expectancy of six months or less. And then compared them to older adults who lived in the community. So relatively healthy. They were healthy enough to live in the community. And if you look at these two groups in terms of subjective well-being it’s not surprising that the ones who lived in the community had a  higher subjective well-being. Not surprising.


But there was an interaction action effect with wisdom, meaning that those who were in the nursing home or belonged to the group of nursing home/hospice patients who were high on wisdom, there was no difference in their subjective well-being between those and the community. And then if they belonged to the end-of-life group. I call this the end-of-life group. So in this case, wisdom really helped them to maintain their subjective well-being even though the objective circumstances were absolutely not ideal. And so this is why I think wisdom is really really useful in old age: to keep subjective well-being, contentment, even if the circumstances are not ideal. Basically, Rowe and Kahn says “Hey if everything is great you will feel great.” Yes, yes I believe that! Absolutely true! But the problem is you have no control over this. You don’t have control when disability hits or when a terminal illness hits or if it’s just a chronic illness that affects you negatively in old age. And it’s very likely that this will happen. And then what? Will you now become an unsuccessful ager and just give over to despair? Or is there a way to basically salvage subjective well-being even under these circumstances? And I would say wisdom helps with that.


Alex Bishop

Absolutely. And that’s a great way to put that concept. That the experience and the research, as you saw, the comparison makes sense. People that have some wisdom, have some experience, we can’t see what they think. We may objectively say “Oh that person’s not doing well” And I think we never look into the experience or the experiences that person, or those persons, have had. I think you’re spot-on on that. I appreciate your insight.


Well this concludes our interview and I want to thank you very much for taking the time and sharing your insights.


Monika Ardelt

Well thank you, thank you for talking to me.




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