Our fascination with wisdom dates back for thousands of years. Many people throughout history have pondered what it means to be wise.
How do you define wisdom?
Aristotle believed in two types of wisdom: theoretical and practical. The former involves the exploration of things we can’t change, but about which we seek truth. The latter explores that which we can change through making good choices (Lacewing, n.d.).
Descartes’s viewed wisdom as good judgment in everyday life and seeking knowledge in all things one is able (Rutherford, 2017).
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
Do you agree with the heavy-hitters like Aristotle, Descartes, Confucius, and others? Or do you believe wisdom only comes with old age? Let’s discuss it for ourselves. Leave your definition of wisdom in the comments.
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This Article Contains:
Wisdom as a Virtue and the Definition of Wisdom
Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.
A single definition of wisdom is difficult to find in psychological research. Some view it as an integration of two forms of knowledge: logos and mythos. Logos comes from formal structures employing logic. Mythos comes from “speech, narrative, plot, and dialogue” (Compton & Hoffman, 2013, p. 200).
Other researchers see wisdom as encompassing a transcendent quality. More openness and the ability to wrestle with life’s greatest questions are hallmarks.
Philosophers Valerie Tiberius and Philip Kitcher and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett share their definitions of wisdom.
Positive psychologists are exploring what it means to be wise. They’re also curious about how wisdom affects well-being.
Although a definition is difficult to come by, agreement on what wisdom is not, have been much easier. Researchers agree that wisdom isn’t a result of aging. They also believe that higher IQ scores don’t equal increased wisdom.
What role does age play in attaining wisdom? Can a child be wise? Current research indicates that the “optimal age to attain wisdom is about 60 years old” (Compton & Hoffman, 2013, p. 201).
The Psychology of Wisdom
Within psychological research, there are a handful of theories about wisdom. One is Robert Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom. He defines wisdom as “using one’s intelligence, creativity, common sense, and knowledge” to balance three life domains. They are interpersonal, intra-personal, and extra-personal interests. People do this over the short and long-term. The goal is to achieve balance among:
- adaptation to current environments,
- shaping of those environments, and
- choosing a new environment
Baltes and Staudinger (2000, p. 124) define wisdom as “expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life.” This is further defined as “knowledge and judgment about the essence of the human condition and the ways and means of planning, managing, and understanding a good life.”
Through their research, they developed five criteria for evaluating wisdom-related performance.
- Factual (declarative) knowledge which asks, ‘What does one know about human nature, interpersonal relations, and social norms?’
- Procedural knowledge criteria answers, ‘What strategies does one use to navigate the twists and turns of life?’
- Lifespan contextualism criteria consider questions like, ‘Where does everything fit?’ ‘How are things interconnected?’ and ‘How are the various roles – education, family, etc. connected?’
- The relativism of values and life priorities allows for the tolerance of differences in values between people.
- Recognition of and management of uncertainty criteria acknowledges that we don’t know everything. There are limits to human processing.
Ardelt (2004, p. 257) in contrast to Baltes and Staudinger (2000), viewed wisdom as an “integration of cognitive, reflective, and affective personality characteristics.” She argues that preserved wisdom (writings) represent theoretical (intellectual) knowledge. This knowledge doesn’t become wisdom until or unless the person internalizes it. For this to happen a person must experience the truth contained in the preserved wisdom. Doing this leads to the person becoming wise(r).
Meeks and Jeste (2009) reviewed the wisdom literature and identified common areas. From their review, they created the six sub-components of wisdom:
- Prosocial attitudes/behaviors: promotion of common good, empathy, social cooperation, and altruism
- Social decision making/pragmatic knowledge of life: understanding others’ emotions and motivations and using the information to make “wise” social decisions
- Emotional homeostasis: self-control and impulse control; ability to manage oneself in challenging situations
- Reflection/self-understanding: Self-knowledge
- Value relativism/tolerance: perspective-taking behavior
- Acknowledgment of and dealing effectively with uncertainty/ambiguity: navigating uncertainty and acknowledging/accepting the limits of what one knows.
Their review also is interesting for its inclusion of specific brain regions believed to play a role in the six sub-components.
Wisdom and Positive Psychology
Peterson and Seligman (2004, p. 39) define wisdom as “knowledge hard fought for, and then used for good.” They describe it as a noble virtue or trait — one that people appreciate in others.
To date, five strengths fall beneath the wisdom umbrella in their research:
- Love of Learning
Each of these strengths exists in every person to some degree. They also can increase in prominence as you learn to use them more. These strengths are part of a larger list consisting of twenty-four.
You can learn about all 24 of your character strengths and see how each rank. Here are two resources:
- Read Seligman’s (2011) book, Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Beginning on p. 243 of the appendix, you can take a condensed version of the VIA character strengths test.
- Visit ViaCharacter.org.
After you discover your top five strengths (the ones you use most often), take a look at your bottom five. These represent the strengths you don’t use as often. Some consider these weaknesses, but this isn’t necessarily true. They could be areas you don’t think much about or don’t value. For example, are you an Atheist? If so, then spirituality might be in your bottom five.
You use the strengths in the middle on an “as needed” basis. For example, if leadership is in the middle of your list, what situations call it forth? Do you use it when no one else will “step up,” and you feel the situation is important?
Revisit your results. Where do the five “wisdom” strengths fall in your list?
Wisdom/Knowledge includes some of the most dominant character strengths (VIA Character Institute, 2015a).
The 5 Types of Character Strengths in Wisdom
As of 2015, The VIA Institute on Character analyzed 655,000 results. They learned the following (VIA Character Institute, 2015a):
- 93% of respondents have either fairness, curiosity, love, judgment, or kindness among their top-5 ranked character strengths.
- 87% of respondents have either fairness, curiosity, love, or judgment as one of their top-5 strengths.
- 77% of respondents have either fairness, curiosity or love as one of their top-5 strengths.
- 61% of respondents have either fairness or curiosity as one of their top-5 strengths.
- All the Temperance strengths (self-regulation, modesty, prudence, and zest) appear least often. They’re usually ranked at the bottom.
- The 10 most frequent “go-to” strengths fall into either Wisdom/Knowledge or Transcendence.
You might be curious, and most of you are according to the previous stats if your “go-to” strengths change. Suppose you take the assessment and then retake it 6 months or a year later — what might happen?
The test has good reliability which means that things aren’t likely to change much if at all. You could see a bit of shifting. Some results are close to others so they could flip. What is less likely is that your top five will become your bottom five.
Your strengths also could move around if you’ve experienced significant personal growth. Later, you’ll read about specific activities you can do so that you can develop your strengths.
Visit the VIA Institute’s FAQ page for more information.
Like wisdom, a definition of creativity is difficult to find. Researchers tend to refer to Big C and Little c creativity as a way to ferret out differences. Big C creativity is those works that transform whole groups of people. The impact of Big C creativity remains throughout history. It’s transformative.
Little creative endeavors impact the person but also can affect others on a smaller scale. The originality associated with this type of creativity involves solving common problems. You also might apply creative originality to everyday routines.
Creativity, as defined by Peterson and Seligman (2004), is “thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it” (p. 29). The essential elements of creativity are originality plus adaptiveness.
Measuring creativity is difficult, but that hasn’t prevented researchers from trying. In fact, many have developed original scales and assessments to do it.
If you’re curious about your level of creativity, take the McGraw-Hill Education Canada self-assessment. It’s based on Gough’s original scale (1979).
The Remote Association Test (RAT), Alternative (Unusual) Uses Test, and Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking all are process measures. All these tests seek to answer how creativity happens.
The first test asks subjects to form an association between a set of words. For example, try these:
- Swiss, cake, cottage
- man, glue, star
The Alternative (Unusual) Uses Test requires subjects to find as many possible uses for an ordinary object. Fluency, flexibility, and originality factor into the scoring. The purpose of the test is to measure divergent thinking.
The last test, used primarily with children, measures creativity, e.g., divergent thinking. Creativity Explained has a helpful explanation of this test.
Press explains how the environment may or may not affect creativity (Compton & Hoffman, 2013). Product is the end result. Three assessments are useful in assessing creativity related to outcome.
The first is the Lifetime Creativity Scale. It’s a self-assessment. The second is the Consensual Assessment Technique. Both of these measures Little c. The latter being a more objective measurement tool. A Big C creativity measurement is the Creative Achievement Scale. It evaluates a person’s lifework.
The Creative Achievement Scale questionnaire is available in Carson, Peterson, and Higgins’ (2005) Reliability, validity, and factor structure of the Creative Achievement Questionnaire. You can download the article at Researchgate.net.
For more information about these assessments, read Character Strengths and Virtues by Peterson and Seligman (2004).
If you’re told to “be creative” then you will be. Open, supportive, informal, and reinforcing environments increase creativity (Peterson & Seligman, 2004.) The opposite doesn’t. In fact, it’s easier to create an unsupportive, constrained environment that suffocates creativity.
Highly creative people tend to allow ideas to marinate while they’re working on other projects. You’ll notice that these people work on many problems simultaneously (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Peterson and Seligman (2004) point out three areas needing more research. They are:
- the genetic basis of creativity
- the relationship between little c and Big C creativity, and
- the relationship between creativity and other human virtues
Creativity correlates highest with curiosity, bravery, perspective, zest, and judgment/critical thinking (Niemiec, 2018).
Have you ever wondered what’s happening in your brain when you’re curious? Researcher Matthias Gruber explains this beautifully.
Curiosity is taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
There’s extensive research, dating back to the late 70s, about curiosity. The tools developed and used to assess this trait are all self-report questionnaires. Some have inadequate psychometric properties, but others provide useful information.
Peterson and Seligman offer insights into each, concluding with the Curiosity and Exploration Inventory (CEI). This tool consists of seven items. The researchers state that this assessment has “good psychometric properties and construct validity” (p. 133). You can access the CEI-II, a ten-item scale from MIDSS. It takes less than two minutes to complete.
Current research is asking a slightly different question. Rather than “How curious are you?” Kashdan, Disabato, Goodman, and Naughton (2018) are asking, “How are you curious?”
They’ve identified five dimensions of curiosity using a 25-item questionnaire. They are:
- Deprivation Sensitivity – Deep need to fill knowledge gaps.
- Joyous Exploration – Finding the world to be a fascinating place.
- Social Curiosity – Wanting to know what others are thinking and doing.
- Stress Tolerance – Accepting and using the anxiety associated with new experiences.
- Thrill Seeking – Risk-taking behavior that gives “varied, complex, and intense experiences” (Kashdan et al., 2018)
The team uncovered a few interesting results while working with two large organizations. For instance:
- intense positive emotions have a strong link with joyous exploration
- competency, autonomy, and belongness have a strong link to stress tolerance
- being kind, generous, and modest has a strong link to social curiosity
- four of the dimensions improve work outcomes, particularly stress tolerance and social curiosity
- 84% of the people in their Merck KGaA study believe curiosity leads to new ideas
The study of curiosity isn’t a “one size fits most” endeavor. Scientists like Kashdan advocate taking what he calls a nuanced approach.
Curiosity correlates highest with zest, love of learning, creativity, hope, and perspective (Niemiec, 2018).
Also called open-mindedness or critical thinking, judgment is thinking things through. Peterson and Seligman emphasize that it’s “not jumping to conclusions” (2004, p. 29). Judgment is the ability to take in new evidence and change one’s mind if necessary. It’s weighing information fairly.
Researchers approach the assessment of judgment in three ways:
- Self-report surveys
- Content analysis of verbal statements
- Expert analysis of arguments
You can find several examples in Character Strengths and Virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 147). Here are three, one from each category:
- Dogmatism Scale (self-report survey) – Read: Dogmatism updated: A scale revision and validation
- Integrative Complexity (content analysis of verbal statements) – See: University of Montana Automated Integrative Complexity
- Argument Evaluation Test (expert analysis of arguments) – See: Critical Thinking Worksite: Argument Evaluation
Exercising good judgment isn’t easy even when it’s a person’s strength. It requires one to identify personal biases, and work against them to assess the situation fairly; be less self-centered, and understand the impermanence of many decisions. Oftentimes, people forget that course-corrections are possible after a judgment error.
Judgment/critical thinking correlates highest with perspective, prudence, honesty, love of learning, and fairness (Niemiec, 2018).
Love of Learning
Peterson and Seligman (2004) describe a love of learning as “mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge.” Formal or informal education isn’t important. Love of learning involves systematically adding to one’s knowledge base.
You might have this in your top five if you strongly agree with the following statements (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 163):
- I can’t do the task now, but I think I’ll be able to do it in the future.
- I like to learn new things
- I’ll do whatever it takes in order to do a task correctly.
- Learning is a positive experience
- I care more about doing a thorough job than whether I receive a good grade.
Love of learning doesn’t typically fall in the top five for most people. In fact, it shows up about 27% of the time placing it in the top ten.
Having a love of learning translates into a motivational superpower. People with this strength tend to persist in the face of challenges (VIA Character Institute, n.d.). Learning invigorates them.
There are five conditions that affect a person’s ability to find connections so that content is more easily learned. Think about a subject with which you struggled in school. If you were able to master it, what factors helped you do that? If you were unable to succeed, what was missing?
Peterson and Seligman (2004) highlight the following characteristics or traits:
- positive feelings about the specific content area
- knowledge about the content area relative to the other involvements they have
- belief that a task is doable
- curiosity about a task that manifests itself in the asking of curious questions
- the ability to identify and make use of resources in order to work on a task.
There are several measurement tools available to determine one’s love of learning (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 165). They fall into four categories:
- Motivational orientation
- Well-developed individual interest
Love of learning is universal, but the way it takes shape isn’t. Culture does play a role in how it comes to fruition. There aren’t necessarily gender differences either. Males don’t have a stronger predisposition for a love of learning than females (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 172-73).
Love of learning correlates highest with curiosity, appreciation of beauty/excellence, judgment/critical thinking, creativity, and zest (Niemiec, 2018).
Wise counsel is the trademark of perspective. It’s the ability to look at the world and see your role, as well as the role of others, in it. From the standpoint of onlookers, how this person views things clicks. It makes sense.
The Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green offer a steady supply of wisdom laced with perspective. Here’s an example you might enjoy.
As we discovered with the previous aspects of wisdom, measurement is challenging, but not impossible. Most research falls into one of three areas:
- wise process
- wise product, or
- wise persons
It’s the combination of these three that yields what researchers now agree about: Wise products are generated by wise persons using wise processes.
How do researchers determine the wise-ness or perspective of subjects? The most often used scales highlighted by Peterson and Seligman (2004) are:
- ACL Practical Wisdom Scale, a self-report questionnaire
- Transcendent Wisdom Scale, open-ended question format
- CAQ Wisdom Scale, observer-based
- Acquired Wisdom Scale, open-ended question format
- CPI Wisdom Scale, self-report tool
One interesting note about perspective is that it’s not only available from the elderly. Some people, according to Hartman (2000, p. 101) “attain higher levels of wisdom earlier in the life course than is expected [the 40].” She called this precocious wisdom.
She conducted a longitudinal study of women in midlife that revealed that a “wide range of adult experiences precedes the development of wisdom” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 191).
Five factors enable or inhibit perspective, according to Peterson and Seligman (2004):
- Life tasks – Pursuing career tasks in the late 30s and 40s, for example, led to the development of precocious wisdom by age 43.
- Adjustment – Wisdom isn’t simply about adjusting to societal norms and expectations.
- Coming to terms with life choices – People who are able to do this by age 53 are wiser at age 53. This was true when compared to people having no regrets. It also was true when compared to people with unresolved regrets (Hartman, 2000).
- Life changes – Hartman (2000) found that women who experienced more major changes in love and career developed more wisdom by midlife.
- Stressful life experiences – Higher rates of negative stressors inhibit the development of wisdom.
You might recall one of the questions posed at the beginning of this article, “Can a child be wise?” How does reading about perspective influence your judgment of this?
Perspective correlates highest with social intelligence, judgment, hope, bravery, and honesty (Niemiec, 2018).
How Can We Best Use Them as Strengths?
As promised, here are several activities you can try for each of the five wisdom strengths. You can find these, and much more in, Character Strengths Interventions: A field guide for practitioners.
- In what situations are you most creative?
- How does creativity help you solve problems?
- What holds you back from expressing your creativity?
- Engage in divergent thinking about a problem or situation. How many alternate solutions can you generate?
- Before getting started on a problem, remind yourself to “be creative.” You could use the Creative Whack Pack to jumpstart your ideas.
- How does your curiosity present across the different domains of your life?
- Where do you feel most comfortable being curious?
- In what situations does your curiosity get you into trouble?
- What blocks or interferes with your curiosity?
- Consider an activity you don’t like. Find three novel features of it while you do it.
- Practice active curiosity. Actively explore your environment instead of responding only when something new pops up.
- What are some ways you use judgment/critical thinking in an automatic way that is also productive for you?
- As judgment is a strong “mind” strength, in what situations is it best to combine it with a “heart” strength?
- When are you most vulnerable to overusing this strength?
- Challenge your personal biases by seeking out information that is counter to your beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.
- When in an argument, practice taking an approach that embodies the belief that truth emerges from a process of critical inquiry in which all important sides should be considered.
Love of Learning
- What is a new area you could apply this strength to?
- In what situations does your curiosity lead you to dig deeper and systematically learn a new skill/topic and in what situations is curiosity not a driving force?
- What topic areas of your learning are most important to you?
- Choose a subject matter that you are most curious about learning more. Pursue this interest area as you dig deeper and wider on the topic.
- When faced with learning something that might be boring to you, consider how learning it might benefit you and the world beyond you.
- In what situations do you feel most/least comfortable in sharing your perspective?
- How has this character strength helped you in your relationships and work?
- Name instances when you have missed opportunities to share a bigger picture view. How might you learn from this?
- Name a life problem. Imagine yourself traveling around the world speaking about it with people from different cultures. Gather information about differences in life contexts, values, and perspectives.
- Talk with a wise person or imagine the conversation. What questions do you ask? What answers are given? What advice is offered?
- Use a signature strength in a new way. Take the VIA assessment. Choose one of your top 5 and use it in a different way. For example, for creativity, turn an inanimate object into something meaningful (Niemiec, 2018, p. 41).
- Acting “as if” – Choose a strength you want to improve. Using all the synonyms for it, practice that strength in real situations.
- Create a strengths habit – Think about a strength you want to build. Establish a cue, routine, and reward for it. Initially, try keeping it to something you can do in 30 seconds or less. For example, maybe you want to increase humor. Place a joke book near your bed. When you get up in the morning choose a page and read one joke. Tell yourself “good job!”
- Boost a lower strength – Choose a strength from your bottom 5. Use it in a new way every day for a week.
Character strengths can be over/underused. The goal is to achieve optimal use of each of the 24 as needed. Following are examples of issues arising from over/under use of particular strengths (Niemiec, 2018).
- Extreme creativity leads to eccentricity, but a lack of it leads to conformity. We strive for adaptive originality.
- Someone who is overly curious is nosy, but a lack of curiosity leads to disinterest. Strive for a balance between exploration/seeking novelty.
- Narrow-mindedness and cynicism are judgment “gone bad.” People who lack good judgment tend to skip reflecting on situations.
- Balanced use marries critical thinking and rationality.
- Know-it-alls flaunt their love of learning. Complacent people don’t care. Strive for deepening your knowledge systematically.
- Extreme use of perspective is overbearing, and a lack of it is shallowness. A wider view is optimal.
- Positive Psychology: The science of happiness and flourishing by William C. Compton and Edward Hoffman (Amazon)
- Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (Amazon)
- Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being by Martin Seligman (Amazon)
- Character strengths Interventions: A field guide for practitioners by Ryan M. Niemiec (Amazon)
- Philosophy: An illustrated history of thought by Tom Jackson (Amazon)
- Researcher Francesca Gino’s article, Why curiosity matters: The business case for curiosity offers great insights. Among them are five ways employers can encourage this trait.
- Five-Dimensional Curiosity Scale (PDF)
- What if affect – our mood – could be a source of wisdom? Lisa Feldman Barrett explains how mood (not emotions) can inform our actions and allow us to make better choices in this video. She encourages us to take a breath before acting so that negative affect doesn’t take control.
A Take-Away Message
Each of the 5 character strengths of wisdom can, like all 24 strengths, develop over time. Think of every strength as a perennial seed planted in your garden. The ones you feed, water, and weed, will thrive. The ones you don’t will wither, but not necessarily die. When you decide to give that little withered plant a bit more attention, it’ll perk back up and start anew.
Which wisdom strength will you feed today?
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.
- Ardelt, M. (2004). Wisdom as expert knowledge system: A critical review of a contemporary operationalization of an ancient concept. Human Development, 47(5), 257-285.
- Baltes, P. B., & Staudinger, U. M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55(1), 122-136.
- Carson, S. H., Peterson, J. B., & Higgins, D. M. (2005). Reliability, validity, and factor structure of the creative achievement questionnaire. Creativity Research Journal, 17(1), 37-50.
- Compton, W. C., & Hoffman, E. (2013). Positive psychology: The science of happiness and flourishing (2nd ed.). Cengage Learning.
- Gough, H. G. (1979). A creative personality scale for the adjective check list. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(8), 1398-1405.
- Hartman, P. S. (2000). Women developing wisdom: Antecedents and correlates in a longitudinal sample. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
- Kashdan, T. B., Disabato, D. J., Goodman, F. R. & Naughton, C. (2018, September-October). Why curiosity matters: The five dimensions of curiosity. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/09/curiosity
- Lacewing, M. (n.d.). Practical wisdom. Retrieved from http://s3-euw1-ap-pe-ws4-cws-documents.ri-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/9781138793934/A22014/ethical_theories/Aristotle%20on%20practical%20wisdom.pdf
- Meeks, T. W., & Jeste, D. V. (2009). Neurobiology of wisdom: A literature overview. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66(4), 355-365.
- Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe Publishing.
- Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
- Rutherford, D. (2017). Descartes’ ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ethics/
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Atria Books.
- Shearman, S. M., & Levine, T. R. (2006). Dogmatism updated: A scale revision and validation. Communication Quarterly, 54(3), 275-291.
- Sternberg, R. J. (n.d.). Balance theory of wisdom. Retrieved from http://www.robertjsternberg.com/wisdom
- VIA Character Institute (2015a, August 18). Signature strengths-frequency analysis. Retrieved from http://www.viacharacter.org/blog/signature-strengths-frequency-analysis/
- VIA Character Institute (n.d.). Love of learning. Retrieved from https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths/Love-of-Learning