By guest contributor and TEDMED speaker, Dilip V. Jeste, MD.
Wisdom is a complex human trait. It includes several components: 1) ability to make appropriate social decisions, 2) overall happiness coupled with control over emotions, 3) helping others through compassion and altruism, 4) self-knowledge and ability to reflect, 5) humility to know the limits of one’s knowledge, and 6) decisiveness when needed. I believe there is an evolutionary purpose to wisdom – it enhances individual well-being along with one’s usefulness to society. Wisdom includes much more than intelligence – that is why wise people are typically intelligent, but not all intelligent people are wise!
The basic concept of wisdom is similar across the globe and has been essentially unchanged over the known history of human behavior. However, there are some cultural differences. For example, spirituality would be considered an essential component of wisdom in some cultures, but not in others. Aging is associated with increased wisdom. As I mention in my TEDMED talk, wisdom likely compensates for the loss of fertility and of physical health that accompanies aging, and allows wise grandparents to transfer their life knowledge to younger generations.
How do these concepts of individual wisdom apply to the wisdom of larger groups such as a family, workplace, sports team, community, or society? A large majority of the members of a wise group would have high levels of wisdom; however, it is not necessary for all members of the group to be particularly wise. Indeed, it is more useful to have diversity in multiple forms including some individuals with varied levels of wisdom. A critical necessity is having wise leadership. Openness to new experience is an essential criterion for group wisdom, but not necessarily for individual wisdom.
A wise workplace will be productive and creative, but will also be happy. Businesses that focus solely on sales or profits would not be considered wise if they require constant or unhealthy competition among their members. Similarly, a collegiate sports team that seeks to win at all costs rather than to ensure high graduation rates and a milieu of collaboration, cooperation, and empathy toward less gifted competitors, is not a wise team, regardless of the number of championships it wins. The trick is in balancing a drive for excellence and hard work, with grace in defeat and magnanimity in victories.
How can wisdom be fostered in such groups? An important means would be through behavioral strategies. Wise parents seek to raise their children to be better decision makers, less impulsive, and with more control over their emotions, more caring of their siblings and friends, while avoiding egotism or ambivalence, and promoting self-reflection. Successful parents do not rely only on teaching their children to embrace these values; they also act as role models of such behaviors by reinforcing positive behaviors and not rewarding untoward ones.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists and counselors seek to modify the high-risk behavior of persons with mental illnesses, such as delusions, aggression, or suicidal depression, with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The focus of CBT is on 3c’s – Catch the untoward behavior, Check that it is unhelpful, and then Change it to helpful behavior. The same principles can be applied to replace unwise behavior with wise behavior at workplace, on sports teams, and in various businesses. While employees who sell the largest volume of products can be rewarded, so too should be rewarded the people who help develop a collegial milieu which increases other workers’ level of happiness leading to greater overall productivity. For example, in basketball, they would reward players with the most assists along with those who scored the most points.
The responsibility for making a group wise lies primarily with its leadership, which then makes sure that the culture promoting wisdom trickles down the chain of command, and reaches the workers on the lowest rung. Ultimately, promoting group wisdom is not merely a nice thing to do– it is a smart thing to do!
In his TEDMED talk, geriatric psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dilip V. Jeste reveals how our brains compensate for physical aging, and discusses an unexpected evolutionary advantage to growing old–gaining sage wisdom–which holds great promise to benefit society as a whole. Watch Dilip’s talk here.
Jeste DV and Vahia I: Comparison of the conceptualization of wisdom in ancient Indian literature with modern views: Focus on the Bhagavad Gita. Psychiatry 71:197-209, 2008.
Meeks TW and Jeste DV: Neurobiology of wisdom: An overview. Archives of General Psychiatry 66:355-365, 2009.
Jeste DV and Harris JC: Commentary: Wisdom – A neuroscience perspective. Journal of the American Medical Association 304:1602-1603, 2010.
Jeste DV, Ardelt M, Blazer D, Kraemer HC, Vaillant G, and Meeks T: Expert consensus on the characteristics of wisdom: A Delphi Method study. Gerontologist 50:668-680, 2010.
Bangen KJ, Meeks TW and Jeste DV. Defining and assessing wisdom: A review of the literature. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 21:1254-1266, 2013.
Jeste DV and Oswald AJ. Individual and societal wisdom: Explaining the paradox of aging and well-being. Psychiatry 77:317-330, 2014.
Thomas ML, Bangen KJ, Ardelt M, Jeste DV. Development of a 12-item abbreviated three-dimensional wisdom scale (3D-WS-12): Item selection and psychometric properties. Assessment 24, 2015.
Meeks TW, Cahn R, and Jeste DV: Neurobiological foundations of wisdom. In Siegel R, Germer C (eds.): Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press. pp. 189-202, March 7, 2012.
Sanders JD, Meeks TW and Jeste DV: Neurobiological basis of personal wisdom. In Ferrari M, Westrate MN (eds.): The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom. New York, NY: Springer. pp. 99-114, 2013.