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For those who are privileged enough, we are increasingly living in a society where we can make choices and pursue lifestyles that our grandparents would not have considered possible. Three generations ago, we were generally expected to remain living in the area in which we grew up and choose from among a few dozen careers or jobs, and our romantic prospects were limited to our immediate social circles.
Now we encourage each other to construct our lives from scratch, by following our dreams wherever they may lead us. As wonderful as this new freedom is, it also places a burden on each of us to make myriad choices and take sole responsibility for the lives we have constructed. The ability to make wise decisions may be more crucial now than ever.
Knowing what wisdom entails and identifying who is wise may help us to live our lives in a way that is fulfilling and meaningful. For thousands of years, the discourse around wisdom has been centered in the study of philosophy and religion. But, over the past 20 years, psychologists have begun to research and define wisdom in ways that provide a picture of what a wise person looks like while providing descriptions of how they operate in the world.
Wisdom is often defined as the ability to make sound decisions and to act or advise others to behave in ways that are more likely to bring about desired outcomes. Some scholars have described wisdom as a form of practical intelligence. I’m drawn to the thought that wisdom is knowing the right thing to do, in the right way, at the right time, in the right context. If any one of these four elements is off, then a decision or action will not prove to be wise. Given the complexity of our world, it may greatly benefit us to be able to identify who is wise and how to act wisely. Below are five attributes or abilities of wise persons:
- Self-regulates. Wise persons are able to regulate their emotions so that they are able to think clearly about what decisions and actions may bring about a positive outcome, and, yet, emotions are not the enemy of wisdom. If a decision will entail strong emotions, a wise person must be able to feel the weight of a situation in order to account for how a particular decision may affect themselves, another person, or other parties.
- Is virtual. From philosophers such as Aristotle to the most recent psychologists who research wisdom, it is firmly believed that wise persons are virtuous people in that they act, make decisions, and counsel others in ways that are mindful of the well-being of all who are involved . A person who is highly intelligent or savvy may know how to get what they want, but, if they do so at the expense of others, they are not considered wise. Wise persons know that individuals tend to thrive in relationships in which everyone flourishes.
- Sees and recognizes patterns. Psychologists who study wisdom tend to agree that those who are older are not necessarily wiser, but to be wise one must have enough experience to glean from to discern how and when to apply knowledge and past experiences to new situations. There is a certain degree of intelligence needed to be able to (a) recognize ways that a present situation may have elements that resemble past occurrences; (b) consider the present situation and discern what, if any, previous knowledge or experiences may apply; and (c) discern how one may apply past learnings to what is unknown. Wise persons can recognize patterns while appreciating the uniqueness of the new circumstance.
- Navigates environments well. Robert Sternberg, psychology professor at Cornell University, has written that one attribute of wise persons is their ability to decide between three possible responses to one’s environment when a person is not pleased with their given situation. A person can (a) simply adjust or adapt to their context, (b) seek to shape their situation, or (c) seek a new environment altogether. Most people will try to do a combination of the first two before moving to the third option. Wisdom is needed to discern whether a person can adjust or adapt without too much personal cost to themselves. One must also consider whether a person has the ability (eg, influence or power) to bring about the desired change. If a person needs to choose a new environment, they will need wisdom to not move into another equally unsatisfying or worse situation.
- Makes the best of bad situations. Most people have lived long enough to know that sometimes we are not able to get anywhere near the outcome we desire. There are many factors in the world we do not have control over, so there are times when we simply lose. But wise persons know that the way we weather deep disappointment has significant impact on the persons we become. Furthermore, they know that there may be actions we can take, or refrain from taking, that will lessen the negative and long-term impact of an undesirable outcome. Wise persons make the best of less-than-ideal situations.
Most of us live with a prevailing sense that many things are not the way they should be, that life is not fair, that disappointment is far too common for far too many, and that we far too often are having to make the most of what we’ve been given. Up until recent times, there were people in our communities who were known for their ability to help us navigate major decisions. We currently may be witnessing the generation with the most choices and the least easily identifiable help. Being able to identify who is wise and to know how to make wise decisions can provide us a path forward as we seek to make the best of what life has given us.