Last updated on 8th April 2021
"Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.” Confucius
“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” Elbert Hubbard
“No man was ever wise by chance.” Seneca
The language is a bit archaic, but the underlying message of these quotations is still very relevant today. And, if you like quotations about wisdom, here are over 20 more that I like, downloadable both as a PDF and as a Word doc.
What is wisdom? This sounds like the kind of question Socrates would have debated in Athens nearly 2,500 years ago. In 2019, many of the key wisdom researchers met to try to put together ‘a common wisdom model’ (Grossmann et al, 2020). As Judith Gluck subsequently wrote “being aware of the relativity of one’s own perspectives and beliefs and being motivated to achieve some common good for a larger group ... are undisputable and central aspects of wisdom”, although she and Robert Sternberg (Gluck, 2020; Sternberg 2020) went on to argue for greater emphasis in wisdom models on the additional importance of emotional intelligence & stability (Grossmann, Oakes et al. 2019) and an even greater focus on commitment to the common good.
Wisdom is important both for personal wellbeing and for the wellbeing of our families, our friendships, the groups and organisations we are involved with, and for society and the future of our planet. As has already been reported (Grossmann et al, 2013) “Wise reasoning is associated with greater life satisfaction, less negative affect, better social relationships, less depressive rumination ... and greater longevity. The relationship between wise reasoning and wellbeing held even when controlling for socioeconomic factors, verbal abilities, and several personality traits.” In contrast researchers found no correlation between high analytic thinking ability (IQ) and wellbeing. Wisdom seems to come into its own in more ‘fuzzy’ situations – such as interpersonal conflicts & debates – where trying to ‘analyse’ one’s way through to a solution tends to unsuccessfully over-simplify the multi-faceted, multi-layered challenges involved. See the linked questionnaire – the 'Situated Wise Reasoning Scale' for more details on this (Brienza, Kung et al. 2017) - here it is downloadable as a PDF and as a Word doc. I personally use this questionnaire as a self-test and a reminder when I'm trying to navigate as best I can through a significant interpersonal conflict. Conflicts are common and they really are a major opportunity to develop further emotional intelligence & wisdom - see, for example, section 5 of the Home Practice for the eighth session of this 'How to live well' course and maybe test how you score on this important & fascinating 'Emotional Competence' scale (downloadable as a PDF file or Word doc).
In some ways, wisdom is like being a theatre director who can walk around the stage and get a sense of each actor’s viewpoint, as well as being able to move out into the auditorium to look back and see the overall picture. In fact, this 'wise director' can even go out to the ticket office and programme planning departments to see how their particular production is developing over time and how it fits into the theatre season more generally. This ability to access a broader, more selfless perspective that acknowledges different viewpoints and can see the context evolving over time makes it much more likely that responses will be wiser, honouring & helping all those involved.
Clearly people can learn and become wiser, although difficult life experiences and increasing age are no guarantees of increasing wisdom. Understanding wisdom’s importance both for ourselves and for those around us is a good start. Then working to develop wiser responses seems crucial if we are going to be part of the solution more regularly rather than remain part of the problem in this deeply divided, struggling, immensely beautiful world that we live in. The two blog posts on 'A startlingly effective way to reduce interpersonal conflict and distress' have already highlighted how valuable reappraisal practices can be for conflict in couple relationships. In the next post, I describe the nuts & bolts of a very interesting wisdom diary method that can be applied even more broadly in difficult interpersonal situations ... and build our own wellbeing at the same time (Santos and Grossmann 2020). When you first explore the diary practice, please try to use it most days of the week for three weeks (Dorfman, Oakes et al. 2021). If you find it useful, consider topping up the practice by continuing to use the method for a week each month ... and after (or even before!) any significant interpersonal conflicts. (Grossmann, Dorfman et al. 2021). Good luck! This 'Wisdom diary' joins other writing practices that I typically use for a few days each month to keep them fresh. For example, the Gratitude & Appreciation exercise described two thirds of the way down this Good Knowledge page on Wellbeing, calming & mindfulness skills and the "Emotional colouring in exercise" (with its linked PDF & Word doc description and PDF & Word doc record sheets). These (along with the sister "Affect dyad conversation") are all complementary practices that can help us lead lives that are happier, more grateful & emotionally intelligent ... and wiser too!