Wisdom by Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Series Introduction - See Vol 2 Number 12

This week's featured strength is Wisdom.


Definition: What is Wisdom?

The strength of wisdom refers to the ability to take stock of life in large terms, in ways that make sense to oneself and others [ii]

Wisdom is the product of knowledge and experience, but it is more than the accumulation of information. It is the coordination of this information and its deliberate use to improve well-being. In a social context, wisdom allows the individual to listen to others, to evaluate what they say, and then offer them good (sage) advice.

Famous paragons of wisdom include the major religious leaders of history--leaders such as Jesus, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, the Prophet. Famous statesmen and stateswomen throughout history such as Winston Churchill, and Eleanor Roosevelt are also exemplars of the strength of wisdom.


Who Studies Wisdom?

Since the time of Aristotle, wisdom has been contemplated by philosophers, theologians, and most anyone concerned with the Good Life and how to live it. (For a good review of the history of wisdom, see Assmann, 1994.)

In recent psychological history, two major research groups stand out as major contributors to the scientific study of wisdom: Paul Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institue for Human Development in Berlin and Robert Sternberg and colleagues at Yale University. There is much overlap between the way the two groups conceptualize wisdom and their research findings are often complementary. Yet it is interesting to note the unique theoretical slant that drives the research of each group:

Baltes and colleagues define wisdom as expertise in the conduct and meaning of life. According to their theory, a wise person is someone who knows what is most important in life and how to get it. He or she knows what constitutes the meaningful life and how to plan for and manage such a life (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).

Sternberg's most recent definition of wisdom stems from his "balance theory of wisdom." According to this theory, people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good. They do so by balancing their own interests with those of other people and those of larger entities (e.g., family, community, country). Wise people can adapt to new environments, change their environments, or select new environments to achieve an outcome that includes but goes beyond their personal self-interest (Sternberg, 1998)


Interesting Research Findings About Wisdom

Wisdom is a positive predictor of successful aging. In fact, wisdom is more robustly linked to the well-being of older people than objective life circumstances such as physical health, financial well-being, and physical environment (Ardelt, 1997; Baltes, Smith, & Staudinger, 1992; Bianchi, 1994; Clayton, 1982; Hartman, 2000).

In a fascinating study of women through midlife, Hartman (2000) found that those women who made major changes in the domains of love and work were higher in the development of wisdom by midlife. Interestingly, she found that making life changes in the 30s appeared to have a particularly positive effect on the development of wisdom.

Experiencing stressful life events across time can facilitate the development of wisdom--up to a point. People seem to benefit from stressful life experiences, particularly if they respond well to them. But as the ratio of negative to positive life experiences tips in favor of the negative, wisdom is inhibited (Hartman, 2000).

Wisdom is distinct from intelligence as measured by IQ tests (Sternberg, 2000). Indeed, Sternberg goes so far as to suggest that intelligent, well-educated people are particularly susceptible to four fallacies that inhibit wise choices and actions. You can read more about these fallacies in Sternberg's entertaining book Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (2003), but I will summarize them here. As you read the list, see if you can generate relevant examples of famous political and business leaders who have been susceptible to these fallacies!

==> The Egocentrism Fallacy: thinking that the world revolves, or at least should revolve, around you. Acting in ways that benefit yourself, regardless of how that behavior affects others.

==> The Omniscience Fallacy: believing that you know all there is to know and therefore do not have to listen to the advice and counsel of others.

==> The Omnipotence Fallacy: believing that your intelligence and education somehow make you all-powerful.

==> The Invulnerability Fallacy: believing that you can do whatever you want and that others will never be able to hurt you or expose you.


Developing Wisdom

==> In addition to watching out for the four fallacies listed above, consider the following wisdom-building activities compiled, in part, by psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

==> Read the works of great thinkers and religious leaders (e.g., Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela). Read classic works of literature. Contemplate the ?wisdom of the ages.?

==> Think of the wisest person you know. Try to live each day as that person would live.

==> Look up prominent people in history and learn their views on important issues of their day.

==> Volunteer at a nursing home and talk with residents about their lives and the lessons they have learned.

==> Subscribe to two news editorial publications that are on opposite ends of the political spectrum (e.g., The National Review for the conservative perspective and The Nation for the liberal perspective). Read them both and consider both sides of the issues.

Remember that wisdom, like all of the character strengths we will cover in this series, exists on a continuum and can be developed with effort.


I hope you enjoyed this newsletter! See you in two weeks when we discuss the character strength Bravery.


References and Recommended Readings

Assman, A. (1994). Wholesome knowledge: Concepts of wisdom in a historical and cross-cultural perspective. In D. L. Featherman, R.M. Lerner, & M. Perlmutter (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior (Vol. 12, pp. 187-224). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Baltes, P.B. & Staudinger, U.M. (2000). Wisdom: A metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence. American Psychologist, 55, 122-136.

Bianchi, E. (1994). Elder wisdom: Crafting your elderhood. New York: Crossroad.

Clayton, V.P. (1982). Wisdom and intelligence: The nature and function of knowledge in the later years. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 15, 315-321.

Hartman, P.S. (2000). Women developing wisdom: Antecedents and correlates in a longitudinal sample. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. E. P. (Eds.). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sternberg (2003). Why smart people can be so stupid. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2000). Intelligence and wisdom. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence (pp. 631-649). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Schools should nurture wisdom. In B.Z. Presseisen (Ed.), Teaching for intelligence (pp. 55-82). Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing.

Sternberg, R. J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2, 347-365.


The Fall 2004 Authentic Happiness Coaching Program launches Thursday, October 28, 2004, with orientation on Thursday, October 21, 2004. Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. will again direct this program and once again we will have extraordinary guest lectures by such luminaries in positive psychology as Chris Peterson, Barbara Fredrickson, Barry Schwartz, George Vaillant, Karen Reivich and others. Some openings in the Fall 2004 program remain, but space is limited and will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. For detailed program information and to enroll, please visit our home on the web at <http://www.authentichappinesscoaching.com/>.


Information Teleconference With Dr. Seligman On Thursday, September 23rd

You are invited to attend an informational teleconference call with Dr. Seligman. This interactive meeting will be held by telephone on Thursday, September 23rd at 8:00 p.m. (New York time). The information call is your opportunity to ask Dr. Seligman any questions you may have regarding the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program that will begin on October 28th. For those who register for the program before September 25th we offer a special early-registration reimbursement:


If you are able to attend the information call, please register at our website, http://www.authentichappinesscoaching.com/pages/ahc_infocall.php?course_id=4

You will receive a confirmation via E-mail containing the telephone number to call and further instructions. Normal long distance charges [$3-$5 for this 60-minute call] will apply].

AHC Program Resources

1. To experience the first Authentic Happiness Coaching Program Master Class with Marty, call 1-212-461-2698. (Call anytime, day or night. Only normal long distance charges apply.)

2. To hear Marty talk about his life and the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program, call 1-212-461-2688. (Call anytime, day or night. Only normal long distance charges apply.)

3. To hear Marty's Keynote at the 2003 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium culminating in a standing ovation, call 1-212-990-7245. (Call anytime, day or night. Only normal long distance charges apply.)

4. To hear what our participants are saying about the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program, call 1-212-461-8615. (Call anytime, date or night. Only normal long distance charges apply.)

5. To read what our participants are saying about the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program, click on <http://www.authentichappinesscoaching.com/pages/

6. Questions? If you have questions about the Authentic Happiness Coaching Program, please E-mail us at <mailto:questions@authentichappinesscoaching.com> or call us at 1-301-664-6756 (call anytime, day or night.)


Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the founder of the field of Positive Psychology, a Past President of the American Psychological Association (1998), and the author of 20 books including his most recent best seller, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. With Chris Peterson, he is co-author of the newly-released Character Strengths and Virtues: A Classification and Handbook. He is also the co-founder of Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC.

Ben Dean, Ph.D., co-founder of Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC, is a psychologist and coach, and the CEO of MentorCoach, a virtual university that exclusively trains mental health professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. For MentorCoach's home on the web and to subscribe to Ben's free E-newsletter, the MentorCoach(tm) E-Newsletter, visit <http://www.mentorcoach.com/>.


2004 Authentic Happiness Coaching. All rights reserved.

[ii] This section is taken directly from Peterson and Seligman's Character Strengths and Virtues, pp. 105-107 and 181-196.

"Wisdom" - Vol 2 Number 19

Subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness Newsletter... It's free.