Gaining Wisdom in the Family, Workplace, Community, and Society

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.

Aging is associated with increased wisdom. (Image: Shutterstock.)
Aging is associated with increased wisdom. (Image: Shutterstock.)

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’sCatch 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!

 



Dilip Jeste

 

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.

References:

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.

Global surrogacy: When making babies is no fun. Op-ed by Leslie Morgan Steiner

The content, views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by TEDMED. By inviting guest bloggers, TEDMED hopes to share a variety of perspectives that provoke and engage our community in discussion and debate.

Leslie Morgan Steiner at TEDMED 2014
Leslie Morgan Steiner at TEDMED 2014: The inconceivable costs of baby-making

As a mother and writer on women’s issues, I believe nothing is more intimate an issue for every woman—actually, every human being—than the desire to have a child.

Now, my children were all conceived and born naturally. They enjoy full robust health. But I discovered that infertility—the myriad variations of disease and biological abnormality that cause specific men and women to be unable to create children together—strikes randomly. Anyone can be infertile. Infertility is surprisingly common; the inability to have children afflicts 10-12% of the human population.

There is no surefire way to prove you are fertile in advance, for example you cannot use a blood test to screen newborns or teenagers for the inability to have children as one might for hemophilia or celiac disease. Part of infertility’s cruelty is the surprise of its assault. You rarely learn you are infertile until you try, and fail, to have a baby.

When I found all of this out, I wondered: what would I have done if I were infertile?

That was when I stumbled upon the seemingly strange new solution of surrogacy—paying another woman to carry a baby for you. Surrogacy has actually always been a solution to the age-old problem of infertility. In fact, surrogacy (via concubine) is mentioned over 20 times in the Old Testament.

Today, the global medical community, funded by generations of desperate infertile women, has figured out exciting—and disturbing—new ways to create babies no matter the obstacles. The medical term is Gestational Surrogacy (GS). A new-and-improved version of an ancient solution to childlessness.

Today, thanks to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other advances in assisted reproductive technology, babies can be created with sperm from one source, an egg from another, and a uterus from yet another. In England today, women who are carriers of rare mitochondrial disease can actually use their DNA in a healthy donor egg cell to bypass the defective mitochondria, thereby creating an IVF scenario with three biological sources. Surrogates today are not biologically or genetically connected to the babies they gestate. This simplifies many ethical, legal, and parenting issues.

And creates new ones.

Modern surrogacy is transforming humans’ centuries-old definition of motherhood.

Today a newborn can have two mothers or two fathers, or no mother, or no father. A baby can actually have zero legal parents, as in a few isolated cases where a gestational surrogate carried a baby created with donor egg and sperm, and a clinic mix-up blocked authorities from tracking down and proving any legal parent.

Today anyone—a 25-year-old with uterine fibroids, a 40-year-old woman with a cancerous uterus, two married gay men, a nun—can have a baby, their biological baby, via surrogate.

As long as they can afford it, because surrogacy in the U.S. can cost $100,000 or more.

Gestational surrogacy has become better known in recent years due to international celebrities such as musician Elton John, comedian Jimmy Fallon, and actresses Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Banks and Sarah Jessica Parker who have all had babies via U.S. gestational surrogates.

But the rise of GS is important for normal people too.

Like Gerry and Rhonda Wile, a nurse and firefighter from Arizona, who shared their story with me for my book The Baby Chase.

Gerry and Rhonda met and married in their late 20s. Gerry was already a father, but he’d had a vasectomy, which he didn’t tell Rhonda about for six years (but that’s another story).

As for Rhonda, for her entire life she had an extremely rare, undiagnosed medical condition that allowed her to get pregnant easily—and she did—but the same condition caused her to miscarry 100% of these pregnancies.

Prior to 20th century medical technology, Rhonda would have gotten pregnant and miscarried dozens of times throughout her reproductive years—as often as 3-4 times a year—for decades, without ever understanding what was wrong with her biologically. For too many centuries, infertility was a lifelong, mystifying curse. A perennial loss that often left sufferers, women in particular, feeling rejected by their husbands, families, communities, and even by God.

So what did the Wiles do?

What would you do?

Today there are several options for the world’s infertile. Treatment, adoption, accepting that you will live your life without children. But for the Wiles, there was only one solution. Surrogacy meant the Wiles could create the family they dreamed of using Gerry’s sperm, Rhonda’s eggs (or what turned out to be eggs from a donor), and an unrelated gestational carrier.

Gestational surrogacy is an exciting, awe-inspiring new medical innovation that makes it possible for infertile couples like Gerry and Rhonda, and millions of other people, to have babies and become parents.

Leslie and the Wiles family
Leslie and the Wiles family

Surrogacy today heralds the end of infertility, the death of an affliction that has plagued humans since the beginning of time. However, surrogacy in the United States is financially out of reach to most people. This is why some people, like Gerry and Rhonda Wile, travel to other countries to find affordable, legal surrogates to create their babies.

The final surprise about surrogacy is that it’s personal. It’s human. It’s about you and me and the people we love.

What if you had to travel 8,000 miles to have your baby—and risk not being able to bring her back with you?

Or had to choose between being openly gay and having your own biological offspring?

Or your health insurance said you were too old, or too religious, or not religious enough to qualify for infertility reimbursement?

Or your God said no, you can’t treat your disease…you must live your life without the children you’ve dreamt of having since you were a child yourself.

Imagine the betrayal you would feel if your country, your political leaders, your neighbors, your God, refused you a baby, merely because the treatment for your disease made people uncomfortable.

Would this make you want—or deserve—a baby any less?

In her TEDMED 2014 talk, Leslie Morgan Steiner, journalist and bestselling author, brought the audience along on her journey to learn the truth about a successful gestational surrogacy industry on the far side of the world–and how it could provide a model to help solve several social problems in the US.