MUNICH — Rick Levenson, a professor of psychology at Oregon State University, has conducted research at several esteemed U.S. institutes and published an impressive number of scientific papers. This is laudable, obviously, and yet is just part of a typical academic life. What distinguishes Levenson comes from a sentence uttered by his Austrian colleague Judith Glück: "Rick is the wisest person I’ve ever met."
It’s especially huge praise, coming from a scientist who has been studying the essence of wisdom itself for years. Glück's recently published book in German “Wisdom, Five Principles Of A Successful Life” offers some somber is not necessarily surprising findings: Absolute wisdom does not exist. And wise people are scarce.
Ute Kunzmann, a psychologist at the University of Leipzig, who has also been studying the nature of wisdom for years, explains such shortcomings. “One can’t live up to the ideal of wisdom because people are fallible,” she says. Her research found that in a sample of 300 people, one person at most would be considered "truly wise" (7 on a scale of 1 to 7). Only 10% would even reach 6 on the scale.
Brain and heart
Too bad, because what Glück calls wisdom sounds inviting indeed. "A wise person has a friendly composure to consider things without judging them,” says Glück, who teaches at the University of Klagenfurt. Wise people can step back, adopt new perspectives and resist the urge to always make themselves look good. This attitude is supplemented by a “deep and broad knowledge of life” and the ability to “grasp difficult problems in all their complexity,” Glück concludes.
Wisdom, therefore, requires different qualities. "It combines outstanding emotional and cognitive skills,” says Kunzmann. For instance, if a wise parent with a 14-year-old who wants to move out of his home wouldn’t dismiss the idea as "nonsense.” Wisdom may even call for respecting the teenager’s wish while pointing out the consequences of his actions. Sounds easy? You're not alone: spontaneous wisdom in a situation like this is quite difficult for most people.
How wisely we behave depends in part on our personality. To a certain extent, our traits can be trained. "Like all kinds of good performance, it requires talent and craftsmanship,” says Kunzmann.
Wisdom doesn’t suddenly appear at a certain age, like stiffer joints or a forgetful mind
Gluck adds that wisdom depends more on a practiced open-mindedness more than "overcoming tribulations and living many adventures.”
But open-mindedness and an ability to change perspective by themselves don’t make a person wise. It also involves handling emotions smartly, Glück says. The one who succeeds in accepting unwanted feelings without ceding control to it, the person who accepts that insecurities are a part of life and who knows how to handle illness or unemployment, that person is on the path to achieving wisdom.
Glück also made an unexpected finding in her research. "Wisdom cannot be developed on its own,” she says. "It needs an exchange of ideas."
One thing is for sure: waiting and hoping that wisdom will come with time is futile. Wisdom doesn’t suddenly appear at a certain age, like stiffer joints or a forgetful mind. Older people do find it easier to connect with and understand others. While this kind of empathy is a component of wisdom, open-mindedness isn’t likely to be mastered by elderly people, though it is true that with age, the probability of being confronted with "wisdom-catalysts" like illness, separation and death increases.
Attaining wisdom is no guarantee of happiness, says Kunzmann. On the contrary, it might be more difficult to function in your job, family life and circle of friends if you constantly question yourself and your role instead of just buying bread and cheese for dinner. If you want to be wise, you have to push your limits. "Wise people usually aren’t the ones who have a great career. Wisdom is reflected when you’re on the outside,” says the Leipzig psychologist.
What about her own wisdom? Has it benefited from academic work on the subject? "No," says Kunzmann, laughing. "I can investigate wisdom without acquiring it in my everyday life." A wise reflection just the same.