"God grant the serenity
To accept things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference"
– Serenity prayer
Human beings have always been interested in wisdom, going back thousands of years to the Sumarians, the Egyptians, the Greeks. Now modern psychologists are trying to answer the same questions that have interested philosophers for millennia. What is wisdom? What role does religion and spirituality play in accepting our deaths? How do we die and age well?
Professor Monika Ardelt is one of those researchers. In this interview, we spoke about her answers.
If you had to explain your definition of wisdom to an average person, how would you do so?
We use a three dimensional definition of wisdom. It is a combination of cognitive, reflective, and affective characteristics.
The first thing that comes to mind for many people is that a wise person understands life. They may not know necessarily more, at least not in terms of intellectual knowledge, but they understand the deeper meaning of truths that are generally known.
That is the cognitive dimension.
We all know that we're mortal. But deep in our hearts we believe that it's true for everybody else but not me! If we really understood what it means to be mortal, we might put importance on what matters most like having good relationships and being kind.
The reflective dimension includes looking at oneself objectively. And by doing this, one reduces self-centeredness. You understand that you have positive and negative qualities. It comes with the understanding that other people also have these qualities. Typically people see these negative characteristics in other people, but not in oneself. But by looking at yourself more objectively, you can become more tolerant of others.
Then you have the affective dimension or what I call the compassionate dimension. It is a combination of the reduction of ego-centeredness and a sympathy or tolerance or compassion towards others.
"Early life crisis could be considered a training ground, an apprenticeship for the hardship of old age."
Is there something unique about the aging process that leads to the development of wisdom?
Well, yes and no. All wisdom researchers would agree that wisdom does not automatically come with age. But we also agree that one of the things that helps in the development of wisdom is learning from experiences.
The older you get, the more experiences you have. And the more experiences you have, the more likely it is that you can learn from them.
Some young people have some very heavy experiences early in life that they learn from. This is called ‘Post Traumatic Growth.’
Early life crisis could be considered a training ground, an apprenticeship for the hardship of old age.
Do you have to have these experiences or is it possible to develop some wisdom while 'coasting' through life?
There's a psychologist who argues that there are two pathways to wisdom. One is through dramatic experiences. But I would argue that it can be any kind of experience. You can also learn from the little irritations of life.
The other pathway he says is through meditation. Through it you develop self-examination, mindfulness, and looking at yourself from a more objective point of view.
What do you think of self-imposed difficulties? A lot people practice sports or martial arts to grow from.
Self-discipline is definitely a good characteristic to have in order to handle difficult situations in life. If you know that you can handle a really difficult training regime, then you'll probably have an easier time to handle life crises.
All these kind of regimes help you become the master of your own mind. Rather than be driven by any desire that the mind has.
"Those who had very high scores on the wisdom dimensions, when they talked about the good things in their life, it was other-centered."
I wanted to go back to this idea of Post-Traumatic Growth. In your research who grew from facing some extreme difficulty in life?
What we find is that those had relatively high scores on the three dimensions of wisdom did learn from their crises earlier in life. As a result they were better able to cope with obstacles that they now experience in old age.
We conducted qualitative interviews that asked questions like how do you cope with crises and obstacles? What was the best thing that happened to you in the past week? The past month? The past year? Your whole life? What was the worst thing?
For people who scored relatively low on the wisdom scale, the good parts of their lives were concerned about themselves.
Those who had very high scores on the wisdom dimensions described the good parts of their lives as being when they helped their son, their neighbour, a stranger. So they were grateful for the things they could do for others.
Is it just a personality difference?
Yes, but how do you define personality? I don’t think that personality is unchangeable. I think it changes.
I did a meta-analysis on personality and you can see, ‘Yes, it does change over many years.’ Maybe not dramatically from one year to the next, but it’s not stable.
So is wisdom a personality characteristic? Yes, I think it is!
One that you’re not necessarily born with. One that you can develop by actually putting effort into it. You want to become a less selfish person that is more concerned about others rather than yourself.
A lot of people have intentions to become a better person, but they don’t necessarily know how.
You have to have some control over your mind. The unconscious mind is much more in charge than we knew before. Therefore, as you mentioned, all kinds of exercises that give you control over your mind help in this regard like doing a strenuous exercise or learning a martial art.
"The goal is always to reduce self-centeredness."
But I think exercise must be directed towards a reduction of self-centeredness. The problem is that sometimes people who do strenuous exercise increase their ego. ‘Look, I’m such a great athlete.’ The goal is always to reduce self-centeredness.
By looking at oneself objectively and accepting what one sees, and just staying with it, your ego becomes weaker.
Let’s say somebody insulted you. You could be very angry and insult this person back. The other alternative is to take a deep breath and see what you feel. You might feel excited, accelerated breathing, and trembling. But just by observing that, you'll calm down.