A look at traditional quotations by famous people shows that what is commonly understood as “wisdom” varies according to personality, experience and epoch. Wisdom is also found in interpersonal relationships, whereby family members, partners, friends, acquaintances and even neighbours can all be perceived as “wise”. This is the case whenever they “give critical input and point out new perspectives to someone who is struggling to find an answer to something”, explains Judith Glück, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Psychology at the Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt. According to her, this very aspect was crucial for the nomination of many of the so-called “wisdom nominees” in the world’s first long-term study on the development of wisdom. These 19 individuals were recommended to the researcher when she asked people who they considered to be wise from their personal environment. A total of 155 residents of Carinthia, including the “wisdom nominees”, accepted an invitation to participate in the study.
Wisdom research is a young field
Judith Glück and her team have been working intensively on wisdom development as part of the FWF-funded research project Life Events, Resources and Wisdom: How is it created and why? How do factors such as significant life events, resources and experience interact? “Wisdom is a highly complex issue that confronts researchers with methodological challenges. We are the first to look at this issue over a 20-year period,” says Glück in the interview with scilog. The theoretical basis for the project, a development model of wisdom (MORE Life Experience Model), was conceived in 2014. It is, however, no coincidence that the longitudinal study is located in Klagenfurt. Supported by project funds from the FWF and the University of Chicago, the Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt introduced ”wisdom research” as a focus research area in 2008.
No wisdom without emotion
Over the past ten years, the definition of wisdom has changed dramatically. Initially, the doctrine was based on a stable concept of wisdom, according to which a wise person always acts wisely. However, when the focus is on wisdom development, it becomes apparent that wisdom is dynamic and dependent on the situation. “Why a person sometimes acts wisely and sometimes does not depends on whether they can call up and apply their knowledge of what is wise in a particular situation”, explains the researcher. The inner attitude towards life plays a central role in access to knowledge, whereby certain emotional resources are crucial. According to the MORE model, these resources are “mastery” (i.e. the ability to deal with uncontrollability), openness, reflectivity and emotional regulation, including empathy (especially in conflict situations). If a person’s emotional regulation is poorly developed, for instance, they have difficulty accessing wisdom-related knowledge in an emotionally demanding situation. The fact that this connection between knowledge (cognition) and inner attitude (emotion) exists can be proven empirically on the basis of the first two survey phases of the long-term study. People with more advanced personal resources are more likely to have access to their knowledge. This illustrates how important the integration of cognition and emotion is both for behaving wisely and the development of wisdom.
A scientifically founded answer to the question as to what and who is wise is unlikely to be found in a concrete reaction to a particular situation. “This is not about what someone has done, but about the thought they put into it. For research, wisdom becomes most evident when people talk about their lives or about difficult events and conflicts”, notes Glück. The researchers are currently evaluating the third phase of the survey. All of the 155 participants live in Carinthia, and are aged between 22 and 89. After an initial thorough interview, they are interviewed once a year over a period of 20 years. Glück cautions, however, that the sample consists of people who are more self-reflective than the average person. When the focus is placed on how someone reflects on events, the scientists can start drawing comparisons – even if the life events are different. The researcher defines a life event as something that “challenges everything that came before in a positive or negative way and requires reorientation”. These situations hold a great deal of potential for people to become wiser. However, both their spectrum and their frequency were surprising: after the first year, 64 out of 101 participants reported at least one such event and a third more than three events that had shaped them in the previous year.
Together, not alone
Although it is a myth that wisdom generally increases with age, it has become apparent that wise people among those over 60 years of age actively use their emotional resources to learn from their life experiences. This finding shows that emotional resources have a greater impact on the development of wisdom than biological age and that these resources also evolve in the interplay with life events, which in turn explains the dynamic development of wisdom. Nevertheless, the insight of not being able to control everything in life (the mastery resource) usually only develops in people after a certain age. “Being truly wise also means knowing how important other people are and turning to them for help when necessary”, concludes Glück. Accordingly, instead of always insisting on solving problems alone, it is absolutely right and important to seek support – not least in order to become personally wiser.
Judith Glück is a developmental psychologist with a longstanding focus on the study of wisdom. She has held the Chair of Developmental Psychology at the Department of Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology at the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt since 2007. She is the co-editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Wisdom, which is due to be published in 2019.