Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, is author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, from which this essay is adapted.
President Donald Trump has been praised and damned for many traits, but wisdom is not one of them. He is said to be charming and enterprising and cunning and bullying and narcissistic; he has qualities of genius and qualities of sociopathy; historians will be conferring adjectives upon him for decades to come. But not even his admirers call him wise.
I would not presume to speak for Canada, but in my country, the United States, the Trump phenomenon is symptomatic of a broader change. In our politics, candidates tout their combativeness, their authenticity, their purity, their combativeness, their independence, their populism, their combativeness, their empathy, their outsider status, their combativeness – did I mention their combativeness? But it has been a long time since I heard a U.S. politician speak admiringly or aspiringly of wisdom.
Outside of politics, too, in the civic and cultural realms, wisdom has all but disappeared from the everyday lexicon. These days, “She’s so smart” is the highest of compliments, but when did you last hear, “She’s so wise”? Parents and teachers urge children to strive to be happy, successful, fulfilled and more, but how often is a child urged to aspire to wisdom?
Ironically, even as wisdom fades from civic culture, it is coming into its own in medicine, psychology, neuroscience and other tough-minded realms of science that until recently had no use for it. In the past few years, wisdom has been put under the research microscope and found to be a distinct, measurable and precious human quality, one that is vitally important and for which there are no substitutes. Perhaps it is ripe for rediscovery.
Dilip Jeste was 69 when I first encountered him in 2014. He spoke in a lilting Marathi accent, a legacy of his upbringing in India, and cut a modest figure physically. Born in 1944, the son of a lawyer, he was one of five children and grew up in a small town near Mumbai. In seventh grade, to learn English, he moved to the city of Pune, where he discovered the library in the U.S. consulate and began voraciously consuming books. One of them was Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. “It was like an Agatha Christie mystery,” he recalled. “Instead of starting with a murder, you start with a dream.”
Solving the mind’s riddles, the young Dr. Jeste thought, should be his life’s work. Deciding on psychiatry, he began medical training in India and continued in the United States at a series of gold-plated institutions. Finally, in the mid-1980s, he landed at the University of California at San Diego. At this writing, he is still there – now with a long string of academic titles and psychiatric awards.
He has another side, however, which is quite different and which challenges mainstream psychiatry in fundamental ways. Growing up in India, he was immersed in one of the world’s great wisdom traditions – specifically, in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. “It’s cultural, growing up in India,” Dr. Jeste told me. “We read the Gita. The whole thing is about wisdom.”
Dr. Jeste, an expert on aging and happiness, was struck early in his career by a puzzle. Why would life satisfaction rise as people move into old age, even in the face of physical decline? The trend appeared again and again in his research, and it was too strong to be happenstance. “I started wondering whether the life satisfaction we were seeing in older people was related to their becoming wiser with age, in spite of physical disability. So then the question is: What is wisdom?”
He imagined he might be able to conjoin two divergent traditions by developing a neuroscience of wisdom. When he set out, he couldn’t find any articles on wisdom and neurobiology (apart from ones mentioning people named “Wisdom”). By 2010, he was cranking them out himself. Top journals were publishing his papers, which were packed with sentences such as this one: “Two brain regions were identified as being common to different domains of wisdom – the prefrontal cortex (especially dorsolateral, ventromedial, and anterior cingulate) and the limbic striatum.” Damage to those domains, he found, can lead people to behave in ways that most of us would agree is unwise, yet without affecting intelligence.
But what are the “domains of wisdom”? Alone and with colleagues, Dr. Jeste combed through wisdom about wisdom – ancient and modern texts, Eastern and Western texts, religious and scientific texts. When I asked what he had gleaned, he replied: “The concept of wisdom has stayed surprisingly similar across centuries and across geographic regions.” Again and again, modern scholarly definitions mention certain traits: compassion and prosocial attitudes that reflect concern for the common good; pragmatic knowledge of life; the use of one’s pragmatic knowledge to resolve personal and social problems; an ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and to see multiple points of view; emotional stability and mastery of one’s feelings; a capacity for reflection and for dispassionate self-understanding.
Dr. Jeste told me, “All across the world, we have an implicit notion of what a wise person is.” Of course, culture imposes many variations on the theme. Yet there is more than enough consistency across eras and societies to suggest that wisdom is not just a random label meaning different things to different people in different places. Rather, wisdom is its own recognizable quality. Its ubiquity, Dr. Jeste believes, suggests it is something important for Homo sapiens – and something hardwired, at least in part. “The concept of wisdom is universal,” he told me. “And so it has to be biologically based. I think there are brain changes that are conducive to feeling better and improving some aspects of old age.”
If wisdom has a biological basis, then it presumably also has an evolutionary basis. Presumably it evolved because it helps people do better in life. And perhaps it persisted because it helps other people do better in life. “Wisdom is useful at any age,” Dr. Jeste said. “But in older age, it becomes especially important. From an evolutionary point of view, younger people are fertile, so even if they’re not wise, they’re okay. But older people need to find some other way to contribute to the survival of the species, and that is through the … effect of wisdom.”
Much remains to be learned about the biology and neuroscience of wisdom. As of now, the work that Dr. Jeste and others like him have embarked upon proffers more questions than answers. But a science of wisdom is being born.
Until I met Dr. Jeste, it had never occurred to me that the concept of wisdom might have scientific meaning, much less that wisdom might be quantifiable. But that turned out to be the case, as Monika Ardelt was able to demonstrate.
I called on Dr. Ardelt at the University of Florida, where she was a sociology professor. In her office, Post-its, cartoons, photographs and children’s drawings adorned every vertical surface. Every inch of shelf space was crammed with books. But her conversational demeanour was orderly and precise. She was born in 1960 in the German city of Wiesbaden and grew up in a smaller town nearby. She was only a child when she first felt the pull of wisdom. “I had this one uncle who fascinated me,” she said. “He didn’t say a lot. He had this completely white hair and sat there while others were gossiping and would smile. There was this very positive aura around him. Just being with him made me calm. You felt good sitting with him there. That was fascinating to me, because the rest of my family wasn’t like that. He was modelling acceptance, equanimity.”
In her late 20s, she came to the United States for her graduate studies. Hunting for a dissertation topic, she hit upon adult development and successful aging. “I was always fascinated by wisdom,” she told me, “but I didn’t think of it as a topic of scientific study.” But one day when she went to the library to look up a data set, her eye chanced upon a 1990 book edited by Cornell University psychologist Robert Sternberg: Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development. “I was like, I can’t believe it! There are people who actually study wisdom!”
Dr. Ardelt wondered if she could sift the hundreds of questions in standard psychological tests and select some that reliably identify people and behaviours that most of us would recognize as wise. In time, she developed a 39-item questionnaire – subsequently simplified, by herself and others, to 12. Sure enough, people who are identified by peers or interviewers as comparatively wise (“wisdom nominees”) score higher on the Ardelt test. Meanwhile, other wisdom tests appeared, and the various tests turned out to produce consistent results. In science, anything you can quantify is real. So it’s official. Wisdom is real!
I took Dr. Ardelt’s 39-question wisdom test. Some questions seem obviously related to wisdom, such as, “I always try to look at all sides of a problem.” Others are more oblique: “Sometimes when people are talking to me, I find myself wishing that they would leave.” My results placed me toward the higher side of the “moderate” range. I think I know why I don’t qualify for the top category. I score well on the reflective elements; I am good at seeing many points of view and thinking objectively about problems. But I do less well on questions about sympathy and compassion (“I often have not comforted another when he or she needed it”). I am not someone who instinctively reaches out to help others or who intuitively grasps how to do it. Besides being something I need to work on, my empathy shortcomings hurt my wisdom grade, because my own wisdom, fundamentally, is not about me.
What, then, is this quality that science is rediscovering? Scholars disagree on the fine points but have arrived at a strong consensus on the big ideas.
Wisdom is a package deal. It entails a variety of traits, but its magic lies in the integration of those traits so that they support and enrich each other. Someone who has a lot of brainpower or knowledge without much empathy or compassion may be clever, but also manipulative and devious, and therefore unwise. Someone who has a lot of compassion without much reflection may be generous and kind, but impulsive and impractical, and therefore unwise. Someone who has a lot of reflectiveness but not much knowledge may be thoughtful but naive, and therefore unwise. On Star Trek, undoubtedly the wisest of all television shows, a recurrent theme is that the most blazingly intelligent character, the Vulcan Spock, lacks the instinctive empathy of Dr. McCoy and the pragmatic decisiveness of Captain Kirk. None of the three alone is wise. Wisdom arises from the (sometimes tense) interaction of the triumvirate.
Wisdom is not intelligence or expertise. You might think that people with the fastest mental processors would bring more cognitive power to bear on reflection and therefore would be wiser; but voluminous research finds that raw intelligence and wisdom simply do not map to one another – at least not reliably. In fact, on some dimensions, such as wise reasoning about intergroup conflicts, cognitive ability and wisdom, seem to be negatively related.
Similarly, expertise alone is no guarantee of wisdom. “Wisdom means that wise people know something,” Dr. Ardelt said. “So this is knowledge. But wise people don’t necessarily know the latest development in quantum physics. What wise people know about is life. They know particularly about the interpersonal aspects of life: how to relate to other people, how to understand other people. And the intrapersonal aspects of life: understanding yourself.” Wisdom, then, is different from intelligence and expertise and more complex and rare than either.
Wisdom is balanced. Wisdom balances strengths in multiple domains, so that none dominates and each supports the others. It entails balance in other respects, too. A wisdom characteristic that comes up consistently across eras and cultures is emotional balance. Wisdom does not imply always being calm and tranquil, by any means; but it does imply being good at emotional regulation and thus being less likely to fly off the handle in a provocative situation. If you are wise, you are better able, in the poet Rudyard Kipling’s words, to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”
Also, wisdom implies an ability to maintain emotional and intellectual equilibrium in uncertain, ambiguous situations. That is challenging, because humans are wired to seek certainty and clarity, even if we attain them by overlooking important nuances. Dr. Jeste argues persuasively that being able to exercise good judgment amid uncertainty and ambiguity is one of wisdom’s core traits.
Wisdom is reflective. Dr. Ardelt and others of her school of thought regard wisdom as combining competence in three areas. One domain is cognitive (relating to knowledge and intellect), the second is affective (relating to compassion and emotion) and the third is reflective – but reflective means something more than mere contemplation. “The reflective dimension of wisdom is basically defined as the ability to look at phenomena and events from different perspectives,” Dr. Ardelt said. “It’s also the ability to look at yourself from an outside perspective. By doing this, by looking at phenomena and events from a different perspective, people get a broader understanding of the world, but also a broader understanding of themselves. That reduces ego-centredness. It also helps develop greater sympathy and compassion for other people.”
Wisdom is active. Reflection, however necessary, is not sufficient. “Behaviour or action is an essential part of wisdom,” Dr. Jeste and two colleagues (Katherine Bangen and Thomas Meeks) write. “An individual may think wisely, but unless she acts wisely, she does not truly embody wisdom.”
Because wisdom requires us to act, it has the further quality of acting upon us. “Wisdom is realized knowledge,” Dr. Ardelt told me. “It transforms the individual. Intellectual knowledge does not, necessarily. You just know more.” In 2004, Susan Bluck of the University of Florida and Judith Glück of the University of Vienna collected people’s stories of doing, saying or thinking something wise. Most people recalled their wise moments as teaching a valuable lesson or overcoming a problem – for example, by wresting a positive outcome from a negative situation. Ordinary knowledge and intelligence won’t typically have any of those life-inflecting effects.
Wisdom is good for us individually. Recent studies have shown wisdom to be associated with, among other things, better physical health, better mental health, happiness, life satisfaction, mastery and resilience, along with less addiction and impulsivity. We cannot be completely sure which way the causality runs: Flourishing may increase wisdom, as well as the other way around. But here is another clue that wisdom is, in and of itself, a good influence: The same positive relationships hold within individuals, not just between them. Examining time diaries (in which people recorded their emotions and reactions over the course of the day), the psychologist Igor Grossmann and several colleagues found that when people are in wise-reasoning mode, they experience more intense positive emotions and less intense negative ones, have better emotional regulation and are more forgiving.
Wisdom is good for us collectively. Has any healthy society ever wished for less wisdom? Of course not, and for good reason. Wisdom confers what economists refer to as “positive social externalities.” In other words, the benefits of having wise people and behavior in our midst spill over to make life better for the rest of us, wise and unwise alike. This is perhaps the single most distinctive and important trait of wisdom, one that all modern definitions agree upon and emphasize. “One of the most consistent subcomponents of wisdom, from both ancient and modern literature,” write Dr. Jeste and Dr. Meeks, “is the promotion of common good and rising above self-interests.”
I believe the single most fundamental trait of wisdom is this: You cannot be truly wise on a desert island by yourself. You can be shrewd, resourceful, intelligent, skilled and much else besides. You can exhibit various elements of wisdom: putting yourself inside the head of a rescuer or possessing useful knowledge about survival or making levelheaded decisions. But as long as you are a society of one, you are only potentially wise. Wisdom is oriented toward social harmony and the good of the people around us, not just toward ourselves.
If you think about it, wisdom’s characteristic strengths have in common their utility for social-problem solving. Wise reasoning helps people put themselves in others’ shoes; it focuses not on abstract intellectual inquiry, but on navigating interpersonal conflicts and other social problems; it is demonstrated in action, not merely in thought. It improves our lives by improving the quality of our relationships, which – because every relationship involves at least one other person – improves others’ lives, too. It expresses itself by proffering actionable advice, thereby spreading itself around; and, when good advice is taken, wisdom is contagious. Temperamentally, it leans toward equanimity and balance, traits essential to compromise and conflict resolution. I can’t count the number of times a wise friend has talked me down from some high dudgeon.
Wise counsel is sometimes high-minded or principled, but just as often it encourages us to “rise above principle and do what’s right,” as the novelist Joseph Heller wrote. It expresses itself, often, in counterpoint to ideology. Whereas ideology pushes us toward certainty, purity and adversarialism, wisdom prizes humility, multiplicity and compromise. In recent years, as parties and candidates in the United States have sorted themselves into warring ideological tribes, American politics has drifted steadily toward polarization and tribalism – and away from the undervalued virtues of political wisdom.
In 1996, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin penned a memorable description of wisdom in the political sphere:
“What is called wisdom in statesmen, political skill, is understanding rather than knowledge – some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that it enables those who have it to tell what fits with what: what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.”
Mr. Berlin aptly captured wisdom’s ineffable, yet distinctive and tangible, quality of social practicality. So did a politician who confronted one of the hardest social problems the United States has ever faced.
In 1962, a 39-year-old Mississippi state tax collector travelled to Centre College, in Danville, Ky., to give a speech he called “In Defense of the Practical Politician.” His name was William F. Winter, and he would go on, in the early 1980s, to become one of Mississippi’s most estimable governors. Still later, he led the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, where he is still active. But in 1962, he was an obscure official trying to think his way through the country’s most intractable and antagonistic conflict: race relations.
“He was a moderate in a state in which the very word ‘moderate’ had been successfully transformed into a term of vilification and abuse,” observed the writer and social activist David Blankenhorn, who, growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, bore witness to that fraught era. Profiling Mr. Winter in The American Interest magazine in 2016, Mr. Blankenhorn recalls 1962 as a time when angry Southern populists, caught up in the passions of racial politics, denounced compromise as surrender and swore to fight, fight, fight (a political tendency that has by no means vanished).
Mr. Winter spoke in a different vein. “Willingness to compromise involves great courage,” he told his audience at Centre College. “Some of the most courageous public officials I have known have been the quietly dedicated men of reason who have worked under the most unrelenting pressures to gain acceptance of unpopular but necessary agreements, while bombastic orators denounced them as traitors or worse.” Practical politicians, he said, do not prefer to compromise. Like anybody, they would rather have things their own way. But they know when the time has come to compromise, and then they know how to do it.
Americans, he said, “owe much to the practical politician and the adjustments he brings to the inexact science of government. If he is less than certain, it is because he knows … that certitude is not always the test of certainty. If he is less than an intellectual, it is because he knows that not all answers are found in books. If he is less than perfect, it is because he is dealing with less than perfect men.”
Mr. Winter was describing a bundle of characteristics that we cannot manage without if we hope to share a diverse, divided country. He was describing wisdom. And he was explaining why we need it more than ever.