Who Is Wise?
Navigating through life is difficult and complicated. Problems often lack simple, well-defined solutions and instead require balancing myriad interests and caveats. To solve problems in real life, people call upon wisdom and seek those who are wise. Unlike someone who is just smart, a wise person is experienced in life and understands the human condition, knows how to balance multiple perspectives and interests, and is motivated to pursue truth and the common good. But who is wise? Does the proverbial "old sage" hold some truth to it? Do intelligent people have an edge in becoming wise? Most importantly, does wisdom really help people live a good life? Are wise people indeed happier?
These questions have been studied by many researchers. However, because different studies define and measure wisdom in different ways, and because any single study is limited, findings vary across studies. As a way to go beyond individual studies and to look at the big picture, we used a statistical technique called meta-analysis. It allowed us to summarize thirty years of empirical research on wisdom to answer important questions like those posed above. Here's what we found.
Must One Wait Until Old Age to Be Wise?
Old age itself does not bring wisdom. Wisdom increases very little (almost negligibly) with increasing age. On the contrary, wisdom declines in old age, which might be due to a general decline in cognitive abilities. Experts who study wisdom agree that life experiences and how one makes sense of them, rather than age itself, lead to the development of wisdom. For this reason, although some people may grow wiser with age, wisdom requires cultivation and is not an automatic benefit of advancing years.
Are Smarter People Wiser?
Intelligence is not related to how wisely people report they typically think, feel, and act in daily life. However, intelligent people tend to give wiser advice for especially challenging dilemmas (however, we don't know if they actually act as wisely when facing such dilemmas themselves). Even so, our previous work suggests that wisdom requires only average intelligence--beyond that intelligence ceases to matter. The type of intelligence also matters for wisdom. Crystallized intelligence, which relies on knowledge gained in the real world, is more strongly associated with wisdom than fluid intelligence, which is the ability to solve problems without previous knowledge.
Who Then is Wise?
If age and intelligence, two obvious candidates for characteristics of wise people, do not consistently predict wisdom, what does? The personality trait of openness is related to wisdom across studies. In other words, wisdom entails flexibility in thinking, the tendency and willingness to take on different ideas and perspectives, and an exploratory orientation in life. The association between wisdom and openness is one of the most consistent findings in the literature. Many experts think that openness fosters wisdom.
Are Wiser People Happier?
Finally, wise people lead lives that are both happy and meaningful. People who report thinking, feeling, and acting wisely in daily life feel more positive emotions, less negative emotions, and more satisfaction with their lives. In addition, they are more autonomous (that is, they rely on their personal standards and do not look to others for approval), feel more masterful of their environment, have more positive interpersonal relationships, are more self-accepting, are more oriented towards growth, and feel more purpose and meaning in life. Being growth oriented and feeling more purpose and meaning in life also predict the ability to think of wise solutions to real or hypothetical dilemmas. Contrary to the idiom 'ignorance is bliss', wisdom is its own path to happiness.
For Further Reading
Dong, M., Weststrate, N. M., & Fournier, M. A. (2023). Thirty years of psychological wisdom research: What we know about the correlates of an ancient concept. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 18(4), 778-811. doi: 10.1177/17456916221114096
Dong, M., & Fournier, M. A. (2022). What are the necessary conditions for wisdom? Examining intelligence, creativity, meaning-making, and the Big Five traits. Collabra: Psychology, 8(1), 33145. doi: 10.1525/collabra.33145
Mengxi Dong is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Beijing Normal University. Her research focuses on wisdom and understanding the discrepancies among measurements of the same constructs.
Nic M. Weststrate is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago. His research focuses on the development, manifestation, and transmission of wisdom across the lifespan and between generations.
Marc A. Fournier is a Full Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His research focuses on personality integration, person × situation interactions, and interpersonal processes and dynamics.