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Wisdom is one of those psychological constructs, like love or intelligence, that we find easy to intuit yet hard to define and measure. We sense that it is good to be wise. We aspire to wisdom and seek it in others. We tend to believe that a life of wisdom is a better, happier life. But what exactly is wisdom? And is it a path to happiness?
Psychologists have been studying this issue intensively for at least the past 30 years. Overall, two general approaches to defining (and measuring) wisdom have emerged in the literature:
- Performative wisdom, the more traditional approach, emphasizes cognition and looks at the products of one’s behavior as judged by other people. It sees wisdom as “expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life.“ Such wisdom requires the ability to consider context, tolerate different values, and manage uncertainty. Wise people, in this view, understand the human condition and know how to deal with problems of living.
- Phenomenological wisdom, on the other hand, refers to one’s subjective experience and is often measured by self-report. “Unlike performative wisdom, which is manifested in products that are socially evaluated, phenomenological wisdom entails the subjective experience of one’s cognition, motivations, and emotions as wise.” It is, in effect, personal wisdom, denoting insight into one’s own life. “Phenomenological wisdom is more likely to capture one’s typical, rather than maximal, level of wisdom, because its assessment invokes the recalling of one’s daily experiences rather than one’s performance under challenge.” These two types of wisdom have been found to correlate, but they are not one and the same. Researchers have been exploring the characteristics of both types—their differences and commonalities.
Wisdom researchers have long been interested in the potential link between wisdom and a good life. Alas, much like wisdom, the concept of ‘a good life’ is also slippery. How do you define it? Psychological research has developed two approaches: The first, known as Hedonic well-being, defines the good life as one filled with positive emotion and pleasure along with the absence of negative affect. A good life in this view is a life that feels good. The second approach, known as Eudaimonic well-being, focuses on “adjustment, growth, and the fulfillment of one’s potential.” A good life in this view is a meaningful, self-actualized one.
A recent (2022) meta-analytic study of wisdom by Mengxi Dong of the University of Toronto and colleagues sought to summarize the research to date on wisdom. The researchers first wanted to know which individual characteristics predicted either performative or phenomenological wisdom (or both). Second, they explored whether wisdom indeed begets happiness and a good life (whether hedonic or eudaimonic).
The study, looking at 30 years of empirical wisdom research, is the first to provide meta-analytic insights into the correlates and implications of wisdom. Multiple studies were included, assessing phenomenological and performative wisdom via multiple measures, and correlating them with a host of psychological characteristics and personality traits, as well as measures of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.
The insights from the study are illuminating.
First, counter to popular views (but in line with previous wisdom research), the study found only “trivial” correlations between age and wisdom. These findings, the authors argue, are “consistent with the speculation of most wisdom researchers that old age itself does not guarantee wisdom.” So, time itself doesn’t buy you wisdom. It’s what you do with the time you have. Second, again countering popular imagination—which tends to envision wisdom as embodied in the ‘wise old man‘—gender was not a significant predictor of wisdom.
What about intelligence? Intuitively, we assume that wisdom has something to do with smarts. Yet the two are not one and the same. One way to characterize the difference is that the smart person knows how to get out of the jam that the wise person knows how not to get into. The researchers did find a small positive correlation between wisdom and intelligence, but only for performative wisdom; phenomenological wisdom was not correlated with intelligence. You don’t need to be a genius to gain self-knowledge.
Next, the researchers looked at the link between wisdom and Big Five personality traits. In line with previous work, they found a large positive correlation between phenomenological wisdom and trait openness. Phenomenological wisdom was also significantly and positively correlated with conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness across multiple measures, but negatively correlated with neuroticism. Performative wisdom, however, did not significantly correlate with any Big Five traits. All personalities are equally privy to peak problem-solving expertise.
Surprisingly, the researchers found no correlation between wisdom and narcissism, a result they find difficult to explain. Self-esteem, on the other hand, correlated highly with multiple measures of phenomenological wisdom, but not with performative wisdom.
Finally, the researchers looked at the link between wisdom and well-being and found that “Hedonic well-being showed a moderate-to-large positive correlation with wisdom.” More secifically, phenomenological—but not performative—wisdom was significantly correlated with positive affect. Eudaimonic well-being showed a large positive correlation with both types of wisdom, but the correlation was stronger for phenomenological wisdom.
The researchers looked further at two central components of eudaimonic wellbeing: Adjustment (assessed via the autonomy, environmental mastery, positive relations, and self-acceptance measures) and Growth (assessed via personal growth and purpose-in-life scales). Phenomenological wisdom was significantly and positively correlated with adjustment while both phenomenological and performative wisdom were significantly and positively correlated with growth.
In sum, the researchers note that “although phenomenological and performative approaches to conceptualizing wisdom have their distinct correlates, both are correlated with openness, hedonic well-being, and eudaimonic well-being, especially the growth aspect of eudaimonic well-being.”
The authors conclude that these commonalities may reflect “the fundamental characteristics of wisdom that are shared across theoretical perspectives. Specifically, wisdom entails being flexible in one’s thinking, the tendency and willingness to take on different ideas and perspectives, and an orientation toward exploration, psychological growth, and personal fulfillment.”
Further, the authors argue that the results establish a robust predictive link between wisdom and “the good life” (in both the hedonic and eudaimonic sense). They conclude: “Although not all forms of wisdom predict lives that are affectively positive, wiser individuals are ultimately happy, perhaps suggesting that wisdom may enable one to find contentment in life regardless of objective circumstances and one’s affective reactions to them.”
In other words wisdom, as you were probably wise to suspect, is good for you.