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What is wisdom?

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. The question is how to do it. For Cornell University psychologist Robert Sternberg, wisdom is all about balance. A wise person is able to complete a mental juggling act – to balance the short-term with the long-term, self-interest with the interests of others, while considering all the options – adapting to the current situation, trying to shape it or looking for a new situation.

Following Sternberg’s model, what you need to do is to remember to work out what all the different interests are in a given dilemma, both in the short and long-term and to pay attention to the changing environment and how it might be shaped. In a kind of school of wisdom, Grossman has experimented with different strategies in the lab. People were taught to take a different perspective by imagining they were taking a bird’s-eye-view of the situation or as if they were watching events as a fly on the wall. The idea is to try to distance yourself from the immediate experience. Even talking about yourself in the third person can help. So when I have a dilemma, I should be asking, what would Claudia do?  

Sometimes we could take it a step further than speaking in the third person and actually ask someone else what they think we should do. We are often wiser about other people’s lives than about our own. One of my favourite studies on time perception involves the planning fallacy, the mistake that many of us make when we think we can finish a job far more quickly than we really can. Whether it’s attempting to redecorate your living room in a day or finishing a work project in an evening, we’re often disappointed when we fail. We tend to think that in the future we’ll have more time because we’ll be better-organised versions of ourselves. Sadly we probably won’t be.

But although we’re bad at judging our own time-frames, we’re much better at working out other people’s. In one study, students were asked to estimate when they were likely to finish an assignment and when other students would finish theirs. They were far better at guessing other people’s timings, because they took into account unpredictable interruptions such as getting flu or coming home to find the washing machine has flooded the kitchen. When it comes to our own lives, our natural optimism seems to stop us factoring in potential problems.

So can you set out to be wise? Yes, but there are an awful lot of factors to remember. You need to take into account that people will have different goals, priorities and responses to your own, across the short- and long-term. If you can juggle all that, you probably are showing wisdom. But the complexity shouldn’t stop us from trying. As Grossman told me, “It’s not that you suddenly become the next Buddha, but you do become a little bit wiser.”

Claudia Hammond