Wisdom is something that’s hard to define and yet somehow we know it when we see it. The wise people stay calm in a crisis. They can step back and see the bigger picture. They’re thoughtful and self-reflective. They recognise the limits of their own knowledge, consider alternative perspectives, and remember that the world is always changing.
Wisdom mustn’t be confused with intelligence. Although intelligence helps, you can be intelligent without being wise. The wise people tolerate uncertainty and remain optimistic that even tricky problems do have solutions. They can judge what is true or right. It’s quite a list.
So, how do you become wiser? Psychologists have been studying wisdom for decades, and they have good news for us. We can all make efforts to be wiser and we might even succeed.
The reasons that we might want to follow their advice go beyond the obvious benefit of gaining wisdom to make good decisions. Wise reasoning is associated with a whole lot of positives: higher life satisfaction, fewer negative feelings, better relationships and less depressive rumination, according to Igor Grossman of the University of Waterloo in Canada.
He and his colleagues even found evidence that the wisest people might live longer. The wiser people were, the higher their levels of well-being, particularly as they got older. Intelligence made no difference to well-being, probably because IQ levels don’t reflect a person’s ability to foster good relationships or make decisions in everyday life.
Grossman is convinced that wisdom is not simply a stable trait that you either possess or don’t. If true, this is good news. It means that at least we’re wise some of the time.
Think back to yesterday. What was the most challenging situation you faced in your day? And how did you work out what to do? Grossman put questions like this to the participants in his recent study. People wrote about being late for meetings because of the traffic or the arguments they had with families and colleagues.
The researchers examined their styles of reasoning in order to assess their wisdom. Did they recognise that their knowledge was limited? Did they see any positives in what seemed on the face of it to be a negative situation? He found that some people appeared to be wise sages in one situation, but not in another.
So why the difference in different situations? People were wiser when they were with their friends. It made them more likely to consider the bigger picture, to think of other perspectives and to recognise the limits of their own knowledge. When people were alone they seemed to get so involved in a situation that they didn’t even think about alternatives.
This means wisdom might be more common than we think. “We are possibly all capable of some aspect of wisdom. It’s just not all the time,” says Grossman.
Some people still displayed more wisdom than others and some were more foolish, but not across every situation. This provides hope. If we can be wise sometimes, maybe we can learn to be wise more often. And the finding that wise reasoning improves with age suggests we can get better at it.