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Wisdom is one of those qualities that is difficult to define—because it encompasses so much—but which people generally recognize when they encounter it. And it is encountered most obviously in the realm of decision-making.

Psychologists tend to agree that wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep understanding, as well as a tolerance for the uncertainties of life. There's an awareness of how things play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance.

What Is Wisdom?

Wise people generally share an optimism that life's problems can be solved and experience a certain amount of calm in facing difficult decisions. Intelligence may be necessary for wisdom, but it definitely isn't sufficient; an ability to see the big picture, a sense of proportion, intellectual humility, and considerable introspection also contribute to its development.

Wisdom can be acquired only through experience, but by itself, experience does not automatically confer wisdom. Researchers are continuing to probe the social, emotional, and cognitive processes that transmute experience into wisdom.

How do researchers define wisdom?

Numerous theories are emerging to try to measure and model wisdom. A leading theory, developed by psychologists Paul Baltes and others, defines wisdom as “expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life that permits exceptional insight, judgment, and advice about complex and uncertain matters.” That encompasses five key components: rich procedural knowledge, rich factual knowledge, an understanding of different life contexts, an awareness of the relativism of values and priorities, and the ability to recognize and manage uncertainty. These criteria are measured by introducing hypothetical scenarios and assessing what participants would consider or do in those situations.

But there are other theories of wisdom as well. Sociologist Monika Ardelt believes that individuals develop wisdom as personality characteristics encompassing reflection, compassion, and the pursuit of truth. Psychologist Robert Sternberg understands wisdom as balance between oneself and others so that actions are directed at the common good.

What are the components of wisdom?

Wisdom encompasses cognitive components, such as knowledge and experience, reflective components, or the ability to examine situations and oneself, and prosocial components, meaning benevolence and compassion. Wisdom is also connected to abilities such as perspective-taking, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility.

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How to Cultivate Wisdom

Wisdom largely emerges from reflection on past experience. Wise people incorporate past observations and opinions into a more nuanced style of thinking—considering multiple perspectives rather than black and white options. Being open to new ways of thinking, essentially challenging the status quo, can be a hallmark of wisdom and help to cultivate it.

Balance is also a key component. Wise people generally act on behalf of the common good but also ensure that their own needs are met, striving for harmony among competing demands and goals. Wise people also seek to understand the motives of others, rather than merely judge their behavior. In addition to fostering understanding and respect of others, wisdom can provide a fulfilling sense of purpose.

How is wisdom acquired?

Wisdom can be gained through a combination of experience and education. Living through experiences such as making weighty professional decisions or resolving painful relationship conflicts provide greater knowledge, and learning to think critically and broaden perspective in an educational setting can help hone the skill as well.

How do you make wise decisions?

When approaching a decision, open-mindedness, perspective taking, and intellectual humility can all help you arrive at a sound conclusion. These features create a bigger picture, revealing contextual factors that can help identify a fit between the demands of the specific situation and the knowledge you may have about how to handle different situations.

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