In the eternal quest for happiness, people can get caught in false fulfillment traps like chasing a big bonus at work or a high-profile award. Psychologists who study happiness, however, have largely debunked status, fame, and power as the essential ingredients for a happy life. Instead, it’s social connections, purpose, meaning, spirituality, and healthy daily habits that can elevate mental well-being.
One overlooked component of happiness? Wisdom.
Wisdom can seem like an abstract, vague quality of centenarians or Yoda, but it is a measurable and clinically studied trait predicting positive aspects of mental health. Some evidence suggests wise people tend to be less lonely, anxious, and depressed, and more emotionally stable and optimistic than people who are less wise.
In a recent study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found wisdom manifests differently across gender lines. Men tend to excel on cognitively-related dimensions of wisdom like emotion regulation, while women may have more compassion-related and pro-social components of wisdom like empathy.
This doesn’t mean men are better at matters of head and women, the heart. The reality is far more complicated. But the findings do shed light on how people can strengthen their wisdom “muscle,” a crucial practice that can contribute to human flourishing.
“Wise people tend to experience higher well-being, more life satisfaction, more optimism, and are better able to handle losses and other situations of adversity,” the study’s authors Dilip Jeste and Emily Treichler, tell Inverse.
Jeste is a distinguished professor and geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego. Treichler is a research psychologist in the Desert Pacific Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center at the VA San Diego, and an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
The wisdom “muscle”
These gender-based differences, which the study’s authors say influence people’s “wisdom profiles,” vary from individual to individual. The team analyzed the wisdom scores and mental health of 659 people. They did not look at people identifying as non-binary or ask people if they identified as transgender, so further research is needed to better understand how wisdom plays out across different groups of people.
“Understanding your individual wisdom profile can be helpful in your pursuit of a meaningful and enjoyable life,” Jeste and Treichler say.
Defining Wisdom — Wisdom as a concept pops up in ancient texts like the Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible and in Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita, as well as the writings of philosophers like Confucius and Socrates.
Yet wisdom did not enter the empirical realm of formal scientific study until the 1970s. Two decades later, wisdom research found its academic niche within positive psychology — a realm of psychology research focused on improving people’s mental well-being, personal meaning and quality of life.
Scientists still haven’t nailed a universal definition of wisdom, but some researchers, including Jeste, have narrowed wisdom down to six core components:
- Prosocial attitudes and behaviors
- Social decision making and pragmatic knowledge of life
- Emotional homeostasis
- Reflection and self-understanding
- Value relativism and tolerance
- Acknowledgment of and dealing effectively with uncertainty or ambiguity
Wisdom is “complex and culturally relevant,” Jeste and Treichler tell Inverse. Groups in different countries and time periods incorporate similar components.
“This tells us that these components of wisdom are likely to be important and influential for many people when it comes to cultivating a meaningful, happy, and healthy life,” the team says.
The Experiment — Wisdom may be universally prevalent, but scientists hadn’t yet figured out if the value varies by gender. Digging into this question, Jeste and Treichler’s team rounded up 659 people between 27 and 103 years old and put them through a battery of surveys to capture their levels of wisdom. Participants completed the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) and the 3-Dimensional Wisdom Scale (3D-WS), two popular scientific measures that capture how wise or unwise an individual is.
The SD-WISE asks questions related to six components of wisdom: pro-social behaviors (empathy and compassion), emotional regulation, self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty and diversity of perspectives, decisiveness and social advising. The 3D-WS asks 39 questions related to cognitive, affective, or compassionate and reflective dimensions of wisdom.
After analyzing people’s submissions, scientists discovered men and women are wise in distinct ways. Men scored higher at cognitive-related dimensions of wisdom like emotion regulation, while women excelled at compassion-related and prosocial dimensions of wisdom like self-reflection.
“Emotion regulation tends to use cognitive approaches to manage emotions, so it fits that men had a higher score there given the overall pattern of tendency to use cognitively driven approaches,” Jeste and Treichler explain. “Self-reflection, on the other hand, is a component that would support many of the strengths we did expect from women, like empathy, compassion, and acceptance of diverse perspectives.”
“Women and men are treated differently from infancy, and this impacts what they believe wisdom is.”
These results don’t suggest men are better at thinking rationally while women are bleeding hearts. These differences appear to be subtle, but understanding how to lean on these strengths or boost these weaknesses could help men and women get wiser.
Untangling the driving factors behind these differences was beyond the scope of this study. But the researchers suspect that gender norms and biology shape how wisdom manifests.
“Simply put, we know that women and men are treated differently from infancy, and this impacts what they believe wisdom is and how they describe what a wise woman is versus what a wise man is,” the team says.
“It’s not too far a leap to speculate that this leads women and men to develop wisdom differently, both intentionally and unintentionally.”
Hormone differences may also be a contributor when it comes to compassion-related dimensions of wisdom, they add.
“A wise woman and a wise man might arrive at the same action but take two different paths based on the differences in their wisdom-related strengths,” the researchers say. “A person might choose to play to their advantage, and use their wisdom-related strengths as much as possible, or they might want to actively cultivate areas that are less strong in them.”
Can you learn wisdom?
As people age, wisdom tends to grow, stemming from years of experience and learning. But wisdom doesn’t have to progress on an inevitable timeline. People can actively foster wisdom and reap benefits at any age.
The team suggests practicing “wisdom skills,” including: seeking to understand the perspectives of others with different backgrounds and viewpoints from your own; developing compassion by helping others in your community and participating in causes that serve a larger good; practicing effective decision-making by slowing that process down and considering all the evidence.
There are also formal psychosocial techniques like mindfulness-based stress reduction to strengthen the wisdom “muscle.”
In the long run, living wisely may help people feel more connected, emotionally stable, and happier.
“If you are struggling in your mental health or some other aspect of your life, considering how you might use formal therapy or less formal activities to cultivate aspects of your wisdom that are currently less strong might improve your mental health,” the team says.
Abstract: Wisdom is a multi-component trait that is important for mental health and well-being. In this study, we sought to understand gender differences in relative strengths in wisdom. A total of 659 individuals aged 27–103 years completed surveys including the 3-Dimensional Wisdom Scale (3D-WS) and the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD- WISE). Analyses assessed gender differences in wisdom and gender’s moderating effect on the relationship between wisdom and associated constructs including depression, loneliness, well-being, optimism, and resilience. Women scored higher on average on the 3D-WS but not on the SD-WISE. Women scored higher on compassion-related domains and on SD-WISE Self-Reflection. Men scored higher on cognitive-related domains and on SD-WISE Emotion Regulation. There was no impact of gender on the relationships between wisdom and associated constructs. Women and men have different relative strengths in wisdom, likely driven by sociocultural and biological factors. Tailoring wisdom interventions to individuals based on their profiles is an important next step.