10.08.2022 |

Episode #10 of the course Introduction to positive psychology by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! Leonardo da Vinci once stated, “wisdom is the daughter of experience”. While da Vinci wasn’t a psychologist, his description does accurately capture how wisdom is obtained. In the final lecture in this course on positive psychology, we are going to delve into the concept of wisdom.

Wisdom has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for hundreds of years, at least as far back as the Ancient Greeks. What is wisdom? Well, in positive psychology, there are several definitions; however, wisdom has been commonly described as gaining knowledge or expertise that is not easily obtained. Wise people are those who understand human nature and know how to live a good life (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000). It is also widely acknowledged that it takes time to gain wisdom.

There are several prominent theorists in psychology who have attempted to explain wisdom. First, Erik Erikson was one of the most renowned developmental psychologists in history. His most influential theory is the eight Stages of Psychosocial Development. This theory suggests that human personality develops throughout eight stages over the lifespan. The first stage begins in infancy and the final stage occurs after the age of 65. It is in this last stage that Erikson believed that people would have achieved wisdom. Specifically, wisdom results from being able to look back at one’s life with acceptance, and not fear their impending death. According to Erikson, this is the final existential crisis we face, if we can look back on our lives without regret, we have lived a good life (Erikson, 1963).

Perhaps the most comprehensive model of wisdom is Sternberg’s Balance Theory of Wisdom (Sternberg, 2009). First, Sternberg suggests that wisdom is a unique construct that is different from intelligence. According to Sternberg, wisdom first comes from tacit knowledge, which is the knowledge that we gain from personal experiences. If we take this knowledge, and then apply it to help people, we are contributing to the common good. Sternberg suggested that people who are wise make the lives of others around them better by using this tacit knowledge, as well as passing along this knowledge to the next generation. Essentially, Sternberg argues that there is a balance between meeting a person’s own self-interest in the short and long term, and being a long-term positive contributor to the lives of other people.

Other research has focused on what predicts later wisdom. An interesting study by Ardelt and colleagues (2018) looked at whether or not scores on personality trait measures in early adulthood predicted both wisdom and well-being later on in life (when the people were over 80 years old). They found that separate personality traits predicted each. The big five personality traits emotional stability (which is low neuroticism) and extraversion predicted later well-being, but openness to experience was the strongest predictor of wisdom in older adulthood.

However, aside from having a high degree of openness to experience, can we do anything else to cultivate wisdom? The good news is that the answer appears to be yes. There are some things that we can do in a younger age that can contribute to wisdom when we are older. Dr. Dilip Jeste, a psychiatrist at the University of California San Diego, developed a seven-item wisdom scale (Thomas et al., 2021) measuring different components of wisdom, which include:

• Decisiveness (make decisions without unnecessary hesitation)

• Self-Reflection (understanding your own actions)

• Prosocial Behaviors (acting with compassion and empathy)

• Social Advising (offering good advice)

• Emotional Regulation (controlling emotions when making decisions)

• Acceptance of Divergent Perspectives (willingness to embrace and learn from others)

• Spirituality (a sense of connectedness to something like nature or God)

Agreeing with each of these components is associated with higher levels of wisdom. Taking steps to modify each of these in your life, over time, may contribute to increasing wisdom in the long run.

Congratulations! You have reached the end of this Highbrow course on positive psychology. We really hoped that you enjoyed it and will find some of the information you learned to be useful in your own life. Thank you for taking this course!


Recommended book

The Psychology of Wisdom: An Introduction by Robert J. Sternberg and Judith Gluck


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