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Individual and Societal Wisdom:
Explaining the Paradox of Human Aging and High Well-Being
Dilip V. Jeste, MD (1)
Andrew J. Oswald, PhD (2)
(1) University of California, San Diego
(2) University of Warwick, UK; CAGE; and IZA
This work was supported, in part, by the National Institute on Aging T35 grant AG26757 and
National Institute of Mental Health grant MH080002 and NCATS UL1RR031980, the CAGE
Centre funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council at the University of Warwick,
and by the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California,
San Diego. The authors thank Maja Gawronska for her help with literature review, and Sandra
Dorsey for her expert administrative assistance.
Please address all correspondence to:
Dilip V. Jeste, M.D.
Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging
Director, Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging
Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive, # 0664
San Diego, CA 92093
Tel: (858) 534-4020
Fax: (858) 534-5475
JEL codes: I31, D01, C18
Keywords: Life-cycle happiness, subjective well-being, wisdom, psychiatry, U shape
Objective: Although human aging is characterized by loss of fertility and progressive decline in
physical abilities, later life is associated with better psychological health and well-being.
Furthermore, there has been an unprecedented increase in average lifespan over the past
century without corresponding extensions of fertile and healthy age spans. We propose a
possible explanation for these paradoxical phenomena.
Method: We reviewed the relevant literature on aging, well-being, and wisdom.
Results: An increase in specific components of individual wisdom in later life may make up for
the loss of fertility as well as declining physical health. However, current data on the relationship
between aging and individual wisdom are not consistent, and do not explain increased longevity
in the general population during the past century. We propose that greater societal wisdom
(including compassion) may account for the notable increase in average lifespan over the last
century. Data in older adults with serious mental illnesses are limited, but suggest that many of
them too experience improved psychosocial functioning, although their longevity has not yet
increased, suggesting persistent stigma against mental illness and inadequate societal
Conclusions: Research should focus on the reasons for discrepant findings related to age-
associated changes in different components of individual wisdom; also, more work is needed on
the construct of societal wisdom. Studies of wisdom and well-being are warranted in older
people with serious mental illnesses, along with campaigns to enhance societal compassion for
these disenfranchised individuals. Finally, effective interventions to enhance wisdom need to be
developed and tested.
The unprecedented increase in average lifespan over the past century without
corresponding expansion of fertility span or significant reduction in chronic disability in later life
pose a challenge to the life-history theory of evolution, which posits that there is no reason for
surviving beyond reproductive age (Williams, 1957). The average longevity at birth in the US
increased from 49.2 years at the turn of the 20th century to 78.7 years in 2012 (Shrestha, 2013).
Whereas the initial increase in longevity was attributable to reduced infant and childhood
mortality, the expansion of average lifespan since the World War II has been primarily due to
older people with chronic illnesses living longer (Congressional Research Service, 2005). With
the maximum reported lifespan being 122 years, humans not only live longer than other
primates (Finch, 2012), but they also live perplexingly long after becoming unable to reproduce
(Williams, 1957) in addition to being physically impaired.
Notably, age spans for fertility and for disease-free life have not shown a significant
increase over this period. Thus, there is no good evidence to support a secular increase in the
average age of menopause, which is around 50 years today. Classical Greek and Roman
sources generally stated a menopausal age range of 40-60, while medieval sources most
frequently cited age at menopause as 50 years (Amundsen & Diers, 1973). The data on male
fertility with aging have been sparse, but there has been no documentation of an increase in
fertility among aging men over the past century or beyond. The overall aging-associated
morbidity and chronic disability have also not decreased significantly during recent times
(Murray et al., 2013).
There is another puzzle about human aging: several new studies have found that older
adults experience increased levels of psychological well-being (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2008;
Jeste et al., 2013; Lang, Llewellyn, Hubbard, Langa, & Melzer, 2011; Stone, Schwartz,
Broderick, & Deaton, 2010). In several of these studies, a U-shaped curve of well-being was
reported – i.e., subjective feeling of well-being was high at the beginning of adult life, then
seemed to decline progressively until it hit the rock bottom in middle age, producing the so-
called mid-life crisis, but then appeared to start rising again such that the level of happiness
around age 80 was similar to that around age 20. However, some other studies have reported
findings inconsistent with a U-shaped curve of well-being (Charles, Reynolds, & Gatz, 2001;
López Ulloa, Møller, & Sousa-Poza, 2013; Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998); the exact reasons for the
differences in results are unclear. Nonetheless, a common finding across a number of
investigations is that of better mental health and increased satisfaction with life during the
second half of adult life. In a recent investigation, chronological age from 50 to 99 years
correlated positively with self-rated successful aging, despite increasing physical disability
(Jeste et al., 2013).
Older age is reportedly associated with a gradual change in attitude which includes
greater acceptance of one’s physical limitations, contentedness with past accomplishments,
reduced preoccupation with peer pressure, and a more realistic appraisal of one’s own
strengths and limitations. Almeida (2005) noted that, compared with younger and mid-life adults,
older adults perceived their stressors as less severe. Carstensen’s socioemotional selectivity
theory attributes the positivity observed in later life to the effects of a changing temporal horizon
(Carstensen, Mikels, & Mather, 2006). In older age, with the growing awareness of limited time
left in life, emotional satisfaction takes precedence over information pursuit (in contrast to
Below, we seek to provide possible explanation for the paradox of aging – i.e., despite
aging-associated loss of fertility and decline in physical health, subjective well-being and
happiness increase after middle age, and additionally, there has been an unprecedented
increase in average lifespan over the past century. We reviewed the relevant literature on
aging, well-being, and wisdom; we also examined the limited available literature on aging and
well-being in people with serious mental illnesses, specifically schizophrenia. We propose that,
for older humans to survive, thrive, and be happy in old age notwithstanding aging-associated
losses, an increase in individual and societal wisdom is required. We present our rationale
under 3 sections: (A) Individual Wisdom, (B) Societal Wisdom, and (C) Well-Being in Seriously
Mentally Ill Individuals.
(A) INDIVIDUAL WISDOM
Erikson (1950) conceived of aging as development rather than decline. The last one of
his eight stages of psychosocial development (age 65 years to death) was characterized by a
conflict between ego integrity and despair, with the desired outcome being wisdom. Forrest and
Cote (2002) have proposed an additional phase of life in which emotional realization of one's
mortality becomes the main issue. Vaillant (2002), a modern pioneer in this field, calls the later
life-stage which comes after the career consolidation of midlife, “generativity”, highlighted by
development of “a broader social circle through which one manifests care for the next
generation”. Below we review empirical evidence that supports the proposed hypothesis that
higher levels of specific components of individual wisdom may help neutralize negative effects
of physical decline and infertility in old age.
1) Higher Levels of Specific Components of Personal Wisdom in Later Life:
Research on wisdom-related behaviors has only recently gained interest among
neuroscientists and psychiatrists, even though the concept of wisdom dates back to ancient
times. Wisdom might be conceptualized as a complex trait associated with advanced cognitive
and emotional development that is experience-driven. Although there is no consensus definition
of wisdom, most conceptualizations involve integration, and can be considered holistic in the
sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Bangen, Meeks, & Jeste, 2013).
Commonly reported characteristics of wisdom include social reasoning and decision making,
emotional regulation, insight, contributing to common good (through traits such as compassion,
empathy, and altruism), tolerance of diverse value systems, acknowledgement of uncertainty,
spirituality, sense of humor, and openness to new experiences. The relative weighting of these
subcomponents is unclear and may vary depending on the context or culture. However,
behavior or action is an essential part of wisdom. A wise individual not only thinks wisely, but
also acts wisely.
It has been long believed in eastern cultures that wisdom increases with age (Jeste &
Vahia, 2008). The studies summarized below are mostly cross-sectional investigations
comparing individuals across different age groups. Therefore, survivor bias and cohort effects
cannot be ruled out. Nonetheless, consistency of findings regarding certain characteristics
suggests that the findings may reflect possible relationship to aging. These components include:
social reasoning and decision making, emotional regulation and positivity, spirituality, and
Social Reasoning and Decision Making: Grossmann, et al. (2010) reported that social reasoning
seemed to improve with age despite a decline in fluid intelligence. Older adults made greater
use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasized a need for multiple perspectives,
allowed for compromise, and recognized limits of knowledge. Worthy, et al. (2011) found that
younger participants were quicker to make choices that led to immediate gratification, whereas
older individuals used their accumulated lifetime experience in decision-making to determine the
long-term utility and not just the immediate gains.
Emotional Regulation and Positivity: Roecke, et al. (2009) noted that older people were less
reactive to daily events— both good and bad— compared to their younger counterparts and that
they maintained a relatively stable mix of emotions regardless of positive or negative events.
Recent investigations suggest that, as people age, they experience fewer negative emotions,
regulate their emotions more effectively, and show positive biases in their memory (Read &
Carstensen, 2012). Gooding, et al. (2012) reported that older adults (> 64 years) were the more
resilient group, especially with respect to emotional regulation and problem solving, whereas
younger adults (ages 18-25) had greater resilience related to social support.
Spirituality: In a longitudinal study from the 1920s through 1990 at UC Berkeley, Wink and
Dillon (2002) reported that spirituality increased significantly from late mid-life to older
adulthood; this occurred earlier and was more pronounced in women than in men.
Decisiveness: Blanchard-Fields, F. (2007) suggest that older adults feel more comfortable than
younger adults in dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Other data further suggest that successful cognitive and emotional aging is associated
with behaviors that promote brain- and heart-health and cognitive fitness. The MacArthur
Network on Successful Aging investigators emphasized the extent to which successful aging
and well-being are under our control (Rowe & Kahn, 1998). Recent data support this stipulation
by showing that successful agers have higher levels of physical and cognitive activities, the
latter including reading, writing, use of computers, and socialization with family and friends,
compared to older adults with worse self-rated successful aging (Jeste, Depp, & Vahia, 2010).
This finding is consistent with the notion that wise people behave wisely. Such health-enhancing
and social behaviors are useful for the older individuals themselves as well as for those around
2) Grandma Hypothesis of Wisdom to Neutralize Negative Effects of Infertility in Later
Some data suggest that longer post-reproductive lifespan may play an important role in the
survival of the species. Specifically, post-reproductive females may enhance the lifetime
reproductive success of their offspring by investing in better survival, growth, and well-being of
their grandchildren, as well as allowing their offspring to breed more frequently and more
successfully (Finch, 2012). A relatively long post-reproductive lifespan in females has been
observed in several species (Carey & Gruenfelder, 1997; Richardson, Burke, & Komdeur,
2007). These post-reproductive females seem to contribute to evolutionary advantages – a
process dubbed the Grandma Hypothesis (Hamilton, 1966). Thus, bottle-nose dolphins
breastfeed their grandchildren (Carey & Gruenfelder, 1997). Reproductive killer whale females
appear to contribute to their own offspring’s survival. The death of a post-reproductive mother
increases the risk of death of the offspring up to five folds in daughters and up to 14 folds in
sons (Foster et al., 2012). In Seychelles warbler, a species of birds, post-reproductive females
tend to become “grandparent helpers”- i.e., subordinates who help raise group offspring
(Richardson et al., 2007). The help provided by older females in raising grandchildren may lead
to increased fitness and survival probability of those infants.
In humans, both anecdotal and quantitative evidence in pre-modern populations shows
that prolonged post-reproductive lifespan is associated with a higher number of grandchildren,
and, as a result, greater fitness benefits for that society (Hawkes, 2003; Lahdenperä, Lummaa,
Helle, Tremblay, & Russell, 2004). For example, anthropological studies in Tanzanian hunter-
gatherers, the Hadza, suggested that grandmother helpers contributed to better survival of their
grandchildren by foraging and preferentially assisting their kin (Hawkes, O'Connell, & Blurton
Jones, 1997). Even in modern societies, involvement of grandparents in upbringing has been
associated with fewer emotional problems, fewer adjustment difficulties, and more pro-social
behaviors among grandchildren, especially those living in single-parent or step-family
households (Attar-Schwartz, Tan, Buchanan, Flouri, & Griggs, 2009). A study of complete multi-
generational demographic records of about 2,800 Canadian and Finnish women born prior to
the year 1900 (Lahdenperä et al., 2004) demonstrated the fitness benefits of prolonged post-
reproductive lifespan in women. The offspring of post-reproductive mothers bred earlier, more
frequently, and more successfully. It is possible, although admittedly speculative, to suggest that
these grandmothers’ “wise” behaviors contributed to their own long survival as well as to their
Notably, a similar evolutionary argument has been posed for the persistence of
homosexuality in animals and humans: what maintains the underlying genetic propensity for
homosexuality, which is associated with reduced fertility? While there are no definitive answers,
some potential explanations have been proposed (Barash, 2012). A “kin selection” hypothesis
suggests that, although homosexual individuals do not invest time and energy in their own
reproduction, they help their relatives’ rearing of offspring. For example, Samoan homosexual
men have been reported to give copious attention to their nieces and nephews, with whom they
share about 25% of their genes. Another theory labeled “sexually antagonistic selection”
postulates that a fitness disadvantage in one gender could be compensated for by a fitness
enhancement in the other gender. Thus, one study found that female relatives of gay men had
more children than did those of heterosexual men.
3) Neurobiological Basis for Successful Cognitive Aging (Increase in Individual Wisdom):
The finding of a rise in well-being after mid-life among the great apes (Weiss, King,
Inoue-Myrayama, Matsuzawa, & Oswald, 2012) suggests possible neurobiological basis for this
phenomenon. Below we discuss several putative mechanisms that might offer at least partial
explanation for maintenance of cognitive function in a proportion of older adults.
Compensatory Changes: A review of functional neuroimaging studies suggested that
some, but not all, patterns of enhanced activation (suggesting compensation) were associated
with better cognitive performance in older adults, especially in the frontal cortex (Eyler, Sherzai,
Kaup, & Jeste, 2011). The reverse tended to be true for posterior regions of the brain. fMRI and
PET studies have reported changes in aging brain that seem to compensate for losses, thereby
contributing to better functioning in some older adults. For example, prefrontal activity during
cognitive performances tends to be less lateralized in older adults than in younger ones – a
brain pattern referred to as Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction of OLD age or HAROLD
(Cabeza, 2002). Also, while brain activation in posterior regions has been found to be lower in
older adults, anterior regions show greater activation than in younger individuals. This relative
shift from posterior to anterior activation has been termed Posterior–Anterior Shift with Aging
(PASA) (Dennis & Cabeza, 2008). These processes result in a greater number of neuronal
networks (especially in anterior regions) being activated in older age, allowing for relatively
“normal” functioning despite aging-associated neuronal and synaptic pathology. Thus, high-
performing older adults may neutralize age-related cognitive decline through a plastic
reorganization of neurocognitive networks. In an integrative functional, structural, and perfusion
imaging study, recognition memory for face-name pairs was associated with more
compensatory brain activity in older adults than in their younger peers (Bangen, Kaup,
Mirzakhanian, Wierenga, Jeste, & Eyler, 2012).
Synaptogenesis and Neurogenesis: In a review of 50 human studies of structural brain
imaging, Kaup and colleagues found that 83% of these investigations reported at least one
significant association of successful cognitive aging with bigger structures and stronger
connections, especially in prefrontal cortex & medial temporal lobe (Kaup, Mirzakhanian, Jeste,
& Eyler, 2011). It is not known, however, what makes these structures larger or connections
stronger. Animal studies have shown beneficial impact of environmental enrichment on brain
function and even structure – e.g., increased numbers of synapses, dendritic spines, and even
new neurons in certain regions of the brain such as the hippocampal dentate gyrus as a result
of physical activity along with environmental stimulation (Gage, 2002). Milieu that enables an
animal to be more active seems to positively influence adaptive neuroplasticity, reducing
neurodegeneration (Lazarov et al., 2005).
Functional Brain Changes in Emotional Responsivity: Research using fMRI
demonstrated that older (but not younger) adults showed greater amygdala activation viewing
positive pictures than seeing negative ones (Mather et al., 2004). In another study, older adults
demonstrated decreased functional connectivity between amygdala and hippocampus, but
increased connectivity between amygdala and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (St Jacques,
Bessette-Symons, & Cabeza, 2009). This may help explain the association of aging with
reductions in memory for negative stimuli but preserved enhancement of emotional memory,
allowing older adults to reduce their encoding of negative emotional experiences and enhance
the encoding of positive experiences. Finally, Brassen et al. (2012) reported that older adults
tended to disengage from experiences of regret. Responsiveness to regret was specifically
reduced in successful aging, paralleled by autonomic and frontostriatal characteristics indicating
adaptive shifts in emotional regulation. At the point in life where opportunities to undo previous
behaviors are limited, this tendency might be a protective strategy to maintain emotional well-
Thus, data support the notion that aging is not associated only with a loss of brain
function. Rather, continued neuroplasticity, promoted by optimal physical and psychosocial
stimulation, may underlie higher levels of certain domains of individual wisdom associated with
(B) SOCIETAL WISDOM (PROTECTIVE AND SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT)
We now propose that the increase in longevity during the past century may be related, in
part, to greater societal wisdom, including compassion, resulting in protective environment and
better healthcare and other support for older adults.
We summarized in Section (A) above a number of studies suggesting an association of
aging with several components of individual wisdom along with greater usefulness to younger
generations (the Grandma hypothesis) and neuroplasticity of aging (the biological basis for age-
associated wisdom). However, there are several important caveats to postulating an overall
increase in wisdom with aging.
i) Some components of individual wisdom have been shown not to increase with age.
Thus, a study (Mickler & Staudinger, 2008) using a rating scale for personal wisdom based on
the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, found no differences between 83 younger adults (age 20-40) and
78 older adults (age 60-80) on self-knowledge (insight) and self-regulation; furthermore, older
adults obtained worse scores on tolerance to ambiguity and self-relativism, partially mediated by
lower fluid intelligence and less openness to new experience. Shammi and Stuss (2003) found
that appreciation and emotional response to humor did not change with age. Cross-sectional
and longitudinal research shows no increase in level of empathy in later life (Grühn, Rebucal,
Diehl, Lumley, & Labouvie-Vief G., 2008).
ii) The studies that reported higher levels of wisdom-related traits in older people were
mostly cross-sectional, and therefore, a survivor bias cannot be excluded – i.e., only those
people who were wise since their youth, could reach old age.
iii) A contribution of cultural cohort effects to findings related to differences in
psychological characteristics with aging cannot be ruled out in many of these studies.
We believe that societal wisdom (with protective and supportive environment) may be
more important than individual wisdom in explaining the increase in longevity during the past
century. While medical advances have been critical for longer survival of older adults with
chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and strokes, it is the societal compassion (a
critical component of wisdom) that allows allocation of its resources to the care of the older
people. Just as survival of premature newborns is far more likely in settings of prolonged and
committed care by adults, survival of older adults, despite worsening physical, cognitive, and
reproductive functioning, is made possible by societies that focus on compassion, empathy, and
altruism along with other characteristics of societal wisdom such as superior social decision
making, emotional regulation, reflection and insight, decisiveness, tolerance of divergent value
systems, and openness to new experiences.
Here one may draw an analogy to lifespans of animals in the wild versus those in
protective environments. The lifespan of most higher-order animals is considerably longer in
protective environments than in the wild – for example, chimpanzees live about 60 years when
protected whereas their life span in the wild is only about 35-40 years (Tarou, 2002). In these
protective environments the animals are provided with humane care that is not available to the
animals in the wild.
The nature of the “protective” environment may also affect longevity. Clubb et al. (2008)
compiled data from over 4,500 elephants to compare survivorship in zoos with protected
populations. Overall, bringing elephants into zoos seemed to profoundly impair their viability.
The effects of early experience, interzoo transfer, and possibly maternal loss, plus the health
and reproductive problems recorded in zoo elephants, suggest stress and/or obesity as likely
causes. For African elephants, median life span (excluding premature and still births) was 16.9
years for zoo-born females and 56.0 years for Amboseli females undergoing natural mortality
(and 35.9 years with human-induced deaths). Thus, the overall milieu plays an important role in
determining individuals’ average lifespan.
How would this scenario apply to humans? More civilized societies that have greater
“societal compassion and wisdom” – including safety nets and better care for the old and the
disabled - would be expected to have longer average lifespans for their populations than those
with few social rules and less societal compassion and wisdom. The latter would selectively
favor survival of the fittest from reproductive, physical, and cognitive perspectives. On the other
hand, “wiser” families, groups, and societies would exhibit greater well-being and greater
longevity across the board. It is difficult to prove that modern societies and their citizens (who
have much longer lifespans than previous generations) are wiser than their predecessors,
although it has been suggested that there has been a dramatic decline in violence in recent
times. Pinker (2011) has shown that violent deaths worldwide declined from 500 per 100,000
people annually in pre-state societies to around 50 in the Middle Ages, and to about 6-8 today.
An important reason for this progress may be the spread of empathy. Rifkin (2009) has
suggested that civilization has progressively extended the reach of empathy from families to
tribes to nation-states, and now to all humanity, and even to other animals and earth
(environment). Empathy can be a potent force to alleviate global conflicts. In other ways, overall
societal wisdom can be seen in reduced numbers of national invasions, genocides,
dictatorships, and droughts, along with a notable increase in democratic movements,
international disaster relief efforts, social welfare for poor and disabled people across the globe,
fight for women’s and children’s rights, donations of drugs to treat AIDS, as well as functioning
of bodies such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Court,
and the International Monetary Fund. A recent fire in Bangladesh that killed hundreds of
garment factory workers elicited tremendous international response ranging from financial and
other material aid to forceful demands for increasing protection and salaries of factory workers
in that country (even though the result would be greater costs for garments in importing
countries). This is not to assert that the whole world has become one big, caring, and happy
family, but rather to highlight the progressive adoption of concern for the masses well beyond
the national boundaries. Obviously we have long ways to go before there is equality and
opportunity for all, but at least the value system is gradually changing. Most people would agree
that today’s societies reflect the components of individual wisdom (rational decision making,
prosocial behaviors such as compassion and empathy, emotional regulation, self-reflection,
tolerance for diverse value systems, and openness to new experiences) to a far greater extent
than the societies of the dark ages.
The relationship between societal and individual wisdom is unclear. On one hand, the
two types of wisdom may grow parallel – i.e., a mutually enhancing relationship between
societal wisdom and individual wisdom. It might be conjectured that caring societies would
foster personal wisdom among their citizens of all ages, while wise citizenry would, by definition,
be essential for having a wise society. Analogous to a wise individual’s behavior (individual
wisdom) that promotes successful aging, a feature of a "wise society" would be one that
teaches, motivates, and incentives its citizens to adopt positive, brain- and heart-health
promoting behaviors. On the other hand, greater level of societal wisdom may reduce the need
for the individual wisdom to survive and thrive in later life. In support of the second possibility,
protective environments markedly reduce the risk of mortality from unnatural and avoidable
causes such as predators, and such protection may also reduce the need for individual wisdom
to survive. Evidence for a lack of need for increase in personal wisdom with age in protective
environments is provided by recent work of Januchowski-Hartley (2013). These investigators
examined adaptive behaviors of fish, and showed that the fish which lived in the safety of a
reserve were less vigilant than those living outside the protected area, and that the former ones
brought their less-vigilant behavior with them when they wandered across a reserve boundary.
The fish from the reserves also tended to be older (because, with protection, they could live to
an older age) - by being in a reserve, they were not exposed to the dangers that the other fish
were, so they did not have to adapt their behaviors to those dangers. Therefore, one could
argue that a more protective society makes it less critical for individual wisdom to increase with
age in order to promote longevity.
To our knowledge, this concept of societal wisdom is a new one, and has not been
studied. Further research is clearly warranted to examine its validity.
(C) WELL-BEING IN SERIOUSLY MENTALLY ILL INDIVIDUALS
There is a dearth of studies of well-being and wisdom in older people with serious
mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Although schizophrenia is generally thought to be a
non-remitting illness, we have found that the paradox of aging seems to hold true for
community-dwelling people with schizophrenia too. Thus, while their physical health declines
with age, older adults with schizophrenia tend to have better psychosocial functioning, including
better medication adherence and self-rated mental health, and lower propensity for substance
abuse and psychotic relapse than younger adults (Folsom et al., 2009; Jeste, Wolkowitz, &
Palmer, 2011). There is an obvious possibility of survivor bias as the sickest patients with
schizophrenia may die young as a result of increased mortality from suicide, substance use, or
medical illnesses. Nonetheless, happiness in the presence of psychopathology in advanced
age, what Saks (2007) calls “wellness within illness”, is an important new area of investigation.
Recovery or sustained remission of schizophrenia in later life has been reported in a variable
proportion of older patients by several investigators (Auslander & Jeste, 2004; Bleuler, 1974;
Harding, Brooks, Ashikaga, Strauss, & Breier, 1987; Vaillant, 1978a; Vaillant, 1978b). Predictors
of this positive outcome include psychosocial support, acute onset, a good premorbid
adjustment (especially nonschizoid personality traits, good work history, and marriage), and
early initiation of treatment. Many studies have demonstrated the value of psychosocial /
behavioral interventions for individuals with schizophrenia. Recent work shows that such
treatments have neurobiological effects (e.g., increase in gray matter in specific regions of the
brain), reflecting neuroplasticity in adult life even in the face of a serious mental illness (Eack et
al., 2010). Although there have been no formal studies of wisdom in this population, people with
schizophrenia seem to develop helpful behaviors, suggestive of some components of wisdom,
in later years. Unpublished data in our cohort of outpatients with schizophrenia suggest that
many patients obtain scores on a scale of wisdom that are comparable to those of healthy
There are numerous individuals who have suffered from life-long mental illnesses, yet
managed to have outstanding lives of courage, dignity, and contribution to the society in their
older years. Prominent examples include William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician who had
several episodes of major depression throughout his life since adolescence, but wrote Pulitzer
Prize-winning poetry after age 50 (Evans & Jeste, 2004), and John Nash, the Nobel Laureate
who suffered from schizophrenia since early 20s (Nasar, 1998).
Unfortunately, there is a gap of nearly 20 years in the average lifespans of people with
schizophrenia and the population at large (Saha, Chant, & McGrath, 2007; Tiihonen et al.,
2009). Furthermore, the increase in longevity of the general population noted during the past
several decades has not involved people with schizophrenia (Tiihonen et al., 2009). The primary
reason appears to be a lack of improvement in overall healthcare for persons with serious
mental illnesses, who continue to be mostly poor, uninsured, and without access to quality care.
An important contributor to this sad state of affairs is persistent stigma against mental illness. In
other words, although the societies are becoming wiser and compassionate toward many
downtrodden groups, some segments of the society are still left out, especially seriously
mentally ill individuals. There is a critical need to enhance societal wisdom in this arena.
The relationship of individual and societal wisdom to aging, well-being, and mental
illness has important implications for both research and policy. Below we list a few topics that
warrant special attention.
(1) Why are there discrepant findings with respect to age-associated changes in different
components of individual wisdom? This issue may have relevance to understanding potentially
modifiable domains of individual wisdom.
(2) Is the improvement in social decision making observed in later life a result of trained pattern
recognition and enhanced procedural memory? Such knowledge would help in the development
of interventions to enhance cognitive aspects of wisdom.
(3) What measures (if any) at individual and social level may help delay, if not prevent,
dementing illnesses? Such research would have obvious public health significance.
(4) Would choosing brain-health-promoting behaviors buttress resilience to depression in the
face of pain (physical and psychosocial) and disability in people over age 85? That is the fastest
growing segment of the population.
(5) What factors account for differences in the trajectory of well-being across the lifespan, with
several, but not all, of the recent studies demonstrating a U-shaped curve? This information
would have implications not only for healthcare but also for social science and economics, given
that many researchers now consider well-being and happiness as important indicators of a
nation’s standing, on par with the gross domestic product (Di Tella, MacCulloch, & Oswald,
(6) The validity of the concept of societal wisdom should be assessed empirically. We believe
there are several potentially testable hypotheses in this arena. For example, the reported
increase in well-being with age among great apes (Weiss et al., 2012) suggests a possible
biological basis for increased well-being in older humans. There is also some evidence for a
lack of need for increase in personal wisdom with age in protective environments (Januchowski-
Hartley, Graham, Cinner, & Russ, 2013). Therefore, one may hypothesize that greater individual
wisdom is not as essential to ensure longevity in a protective society as it is in less
(7) Studies of wisdom and well-being are warranted in people with major mental illnesses.
There is a need for developing models of health care that promote brain health in the seriously
and persistently mentally ill persons. Major mental illnesses demonstrably increase the risk for
early mortality and shortened life expectancy, probably through their direct “toxic” effects on the
brain as well as by interfering with access to primary health care services. While there has been
a recent focus on integrating depression care management into primary care (e.g., the IMPACT
study (Unutzer et al., 2002)), little is known about how to best integrate primary care medicine
into mental health services for the chronically mentally ill. Arguably, a wise society should find
ways of doing this.
(8) Psychosocial and behavioral treatments, and in near future, biological interventions, to
enhance individual wisdom should be developed and tested across age groups and in different
(9) The link and the synergy between individually-nurtured and socially-inculcated wisdom could
be strengthened. Thus, the potential benefit accruing from the mutual reinforcement of individual
and societal wisdom, as enacted in the behaviors that promote brain health, should be
evaluated. Hypotheses can be construed to set the stage for further research into wise, brain-
and heart-health-promoting behaviors (on the part of individuals) and wise, brain- and heart-
health-promoting policies (on the part of societies).
(10) As noted above, the general increase in longevity observed during the last several decades
has escaped people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia (Tiihonen et al., 2009).
A likely reason is the persistent stigma against mental illness, such that modern societies have
failed to implement true mental healthcare parity. A sustained international campaign for
destigmatization of psychiatric disorders is needed to increase societal compassion for this
disenfranchised segment of our society (Clark et al., 2013; Cummings, Lucas, & Druss, 2013;
Henderson, Evans-Lacko, & Thornicroft, 2013). A society is not wise unless and until it provides
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