Wisdom—It’s a real thing but perhaps not what you thought!

Boy watching tortoise
Image: Mojca JJ

Wisdom is in part an attitude—an openness to possibilities and a willingness to learn in the moment and in hindsight. Those who are wise approach life from the perspective that solutions can often be found or created using existing knowledge and resources. Frequently it’s tacit knowledge that is most helpful. In situations where we don’t possess the required knowledge or experience, a wise person is willing to seek an opinion from someone more experienced or to ask for help from an expert. Wisdom researchers call this intellectual humility.

Wisdom thrives on creativity. Just because a solution is unconventional or untried doesn’t mean it won’t work. The solution may not be perfect and it might be the best of two or more options. Wisdom requires a readiness to accept uncertainty and to engage in trial and error.

The ability to figure out what to do when facing a situation we’ve never seen before may be considered innovation, resourcefulness or perception. Wisdom is an old-fashioned word and not an attribute that many of us would claim for ourselves. Research on wisdom has been increasing in recent years, however, as the following websites illustrate.

Center for Practical Wisdom (University of Chicago)

Evidence-based Wisdom

The following examples from the Center for Practical Wisdom “News” page demonstrate the diversity of wise thinking:

♦ wisdom can be learned
♦ researchers have found “a strong inverse association between wisdom and loneliness. People who were deemed wiser were less lonely.”
♦ “Wisdom, according to the science behind the San Diego Wisdom Scale, is about being practical, self-aware, inclusive and relatively even-keeled emotionally.”
Elements of wisdom include: humility, tolerance to ambiguity, perspective taking, reflection and emotional intelligence
Social connections during difficult life events lead to growth and wisdom. Examples include:
⇒ Asking for help
⇒ Receiving “unsolicited emotional support from social networks”
⇒ Physical contact
⇒ Receiving unwanted support (e.g. from over-protective family/friends)
⇒ Contrasting personal situation with others
⇒ Seeking professional support (e.g. medical, therapeutic)
⇒ Seeking input from others with similar experience
⇒ Creating new connections
⇒ Learning from “society at large”
♦ On making wiser decisions, University of Waterloo’s Dr. Igor Grossmann notes:
“…we have some evidence that features like open-mindedness, perspective taking and intellectual humility afford a bigger picture.”

Wisdom is not an all-or-nothing scenario. We may be wise in one situation but not in another. According to Dr. Marianna Pogosyan, psychological researchers consider wisdom to be a “multifaceted concept with cognitive (knowledge and experience), reflective (the ability to examine issues and oneself) and prosocial (benevolence and compassion) components.”

The once commonly accepted notion that wisdom comes with age has been debated by current wisdom theorists. Wisdom is now thought to develop over the lifespan and in fact seems to decrease from middle age and older as memory and intellectual level/speed begin to decline.* (p. 1340)

“Although life expectancy has increased during the last century (Murphy, Xu, & Kochanek, 2013), it appears that wisdom has not. In fact wisdom seems to be rare among any age group, including the old. Life experiences might be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the development of wisdom. Instead, most experts and lay people agree that learning from life experiences is a prerequisite for the emergence of wisdom (Staudinger & Gluck, 2011).”* (p. 1339) [emphasis added]

Whether we use the label wisdom or not, successful decision making is related to perspective, openness, learning from previous experience and a willingness and ability to connect with others for support, advice or expertise. The potential for wisdom can be enhanced by emulating successful attitudes and behaviours of wise individuals. While being wise today doesn’t guarantee wisdom tomorrow, practicing the characteristics connected with wisdom is likely to improve your life.


* Ardelt, M., Pridgen, S., & Nutter-Pridgen, K. L. (2018). The Relation Between Age and Three-Dimensional Wisdom: Variations by Wisdom Dimensions and Education. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 73(8), 1339-1349. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbx182
Available: https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article-abstract/73/8/1339/4833512?redirectedFrom=fulltext