Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.
—Epicurus (341–270 BC)2
Since I can remember I have always admired those who I have viewed as being wise – either real or fictional (how can Yoda not come to mind when thinking of examples wise men). Sometimes the admiration comes from what they say, sometimes from their overall demeanour, other times from their response to challenging situations. But is this wisdom? It occurred to me I wasn’t even 100% confident in what wisdom was! I had no definition I was confident in. It seems like a good starting point for this blog series.
What Is Wisdom?
We propose that wisdom is a complex human trait with several specific components: social decision making, emotional regulation, prosocial behaviours, self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty, decisiveness, and spirituality.
In a systematic review of the scientific literature, Meeks and Jeste identified six common components:
- General knowledge of life and social decision making
- Emotional regulation
- Prosocial behaviours like compassion and empathy
- Insight or self-reflection (on this note findings support the idea that how and why individuals self-reflect matters more than how much they reflect).
- Acceptance of different value systems
A subsequent literature review added the components of:
- Openness to new experiences
- Sense of humour
An alternative definition, described as a ‘modern pragmatic definition’ is:
“the ability to find practical, creative, contextually appropriate and emotionally satisfying solutions to complicated human problems.”
Can We Measure Wisdom?
Three measurements commonly used in empirical research, all self-report scales with good psychometric properties, are:
- The Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale, which covers three proposed components: cognitive, reflective, and affective/compassionate.
- The Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale, which reflects five proposed dimensions: humour, emotional regulation, reminiscence/reflectiveness, openness to experience, and critical life experiences
- The San Diego Wisdom Scale, which reflects six commonly identified components: prosocial behaviours, social decision-making, self-reflection, emotional regulation, decisiveness, and acceptance of uncertainty.
Does wisdom influence health?
Emerging research suggests that it is linked to better overall health, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, and resilience.
Some think it likely increases with age (bot not all research shows this to be the case as we will see) facilitating a possible evolutionary role of wise grandparents in promoting the fitness of the species. Despite the loss of their own fertility and physical health, older adults help enhance their children’s well-being, health, longevity, and fertility—the “Grandma Hypothesis”. (source)
Can we improve it?
Before I looked at the research I intuitively felt it must be something we can develop. Just look at the above list and we can see many aspects which are modifiable, such as spirituality and emotional regulation. It thus comes at no surprise that in the research meditation has been discussed as a tool to enhance our wisdom:
Nusbaum and colleagues reported that more extensive experiences such as meditation and dance, rather than chronological age, were associated with increased cognitive, affective, and reflective wisdom
We can also just look at the above list of terms used to help define wisdom and come up with strategies to cultivate this trait:
- New experiences – as we experience new cultures and experiences, we should become more open to them (new experiences) but also our general knowledge of life and our acceptance for different value systems may improve too.
- Journalling – to encourage reflection and self-awareness
- Find a coach/mentor who fulfils your accepted definition on wisdom and learn from them.
- Read (for the same reasons as point 1), take time outs (reflection), and stay open minded.
- Practice self-compassion and compassion to others.
It’s interesting how many of the traits of wisdom can be improved by simply slowing down and meditating – how ever suits you most. This quote seems apt. here;
We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom – E. O. Wilson
So I encourage you to reflect on the many components of wisdom. Which do you feel may need your attention most? Which, if practiced/explored may provide the biggest bang for your buck in improving it?
And in summary, if we want to know whether we are wise then this final quote sums it up well:
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, however, and the ultimate demonstration of wisdom is in behavior.