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Difficult life events can provide new insight and wisdom

After a traumatic or difficult life event such as the loss of a loved one, it can be difficult to cope and process everything.

Many people have a hard time finding meaning or even a sense of self, but a new study has revealed how these kind of life-changing events can provide crucial learning opportunities.

Researchers from Oregon State University found that most people gained wisdom and new insight from a difficult time. The research was published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

“The adage used to be ‘with age comes wisdom,’ but that’s not really true,” said Carolyn Aldwin, an author of the study and an expert on psychosocial factors that influence aging. “Generally, the people who had to work to sort things out after a difficult life event are the ones who arrived at new meaning.”

The researchers wanted to examine the effects that adversity and trauma had on the development of wisdom. Their work could help with future studies that delve into healthy aging and how to incorporate better coping and management techniques.

For the study, 50 adults ages 56 to 91 were interviewed. During the interviews, participants were asked to discuss a difficult life event, how they cope, and if their outlook was changed after.

Aldwin noted that people often define themselves based on their past traumas and so for the interviews, the participants were immediately able to identify a difficult or challenging time.

After analyzing the interviews, the researchers found that 13 of the participants were not affected by the event as far questioning their purpose or meaning.

A large majority of the participants, however, reported that the event was so disrupting that it presented an opportunity to reflect and assess their beliefs and understanding of the world around them, ultimately gaining new wisdom and insight.

The results also showed that social interactions such as receiving unsolicited emotional support played an important role in how people coped and managed after the event in questions and also added wisdom.

“It mattered whether a participant was expected to adjust to the event quickly and ‘get back to life,’ or whether they were encouraged to grow and change as a result of the event,” said Heidi Igarashi, the study’s lead author. “The quality of the social interactions really make a difference.”

The results show how important social support is during a difficult event and that the kind of support we receive helps shape the way we look for new understanding and meaning.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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