Bringing Practical Wisdom Into Your Life in the COVID-19 Era

Wisdom isn't just an abstract concept. It's a way to improve your health.

Posted May 11, 2020

Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young

nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old.

For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.

—Epicurus (341-270 BC)

We all are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis—a pandemic caused by a new coronavirus to which humans have never been exposed. We know of no existing immunological defense, nor do we know what to expect in the months ahead. There is overwhelming uncertainty, confusion, fear, and foreboding at every level.

Another challenge lies in the recommended, sometimes mandated steps to control the spread of the virus, including social distancing. Humans are social animals. How do we distance ourselves from our loved ones, from our colleagues, or even from strangers who might present us with unexpected joys and interests?

The necessary strategies to tame the virus fly in the face of everything we teach our kids—shake hands when you greet, hug someone you care for, eat together, share your toys and gifts with others, play with one another. Social engagement is one of the most evidence-based strategies for health and longevity. How do we suddenly switch to the exact opposite by physically distancing ourselves from everyone outside of our household?

This is our first blog post for Psychology Today. We wish we could have started at a more auspicious time when more people are happy and contented rather than stressed and nervous. On the other hand, every crisis is an opportunity, and the need for our primary topic of interest—practical wisdom—couldn’t be greater than now.

Introducing Ourselves

We are colleagues on the faculty of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

Dilip is a geriatric neuropsychiatrist who studies schizophrenia and aging. His research has shown that mental health actually improved with age in both people with schizophrenia and in the community at large. He wondered if this was the so-called wisdom of aging, which led to his current research question: What is wisdom? 

Emily is a clinical psychologist whose research and clinical work primarily focuses on helping people with psychosis and other serious mental illnesses pursue enjoyable and meaningful lives.

What Does Wisdom Mean, and How Can It Be Studied?

The term “wisdom” is used in everyday language with different meanings. Wisdom is an ancient concept, rooted in philosophy and religion, developed across cultures and millennia. Some readers may wonder how such a “fuzzy” concept can have any scientific basis at all, or how it would fit into the framework of mental health.

Empirical research on wisdom began in the 1970s at the Max Plank Institute in Berlin (led by Paul Baltes) and at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (led by Vivian Clayton). Since then, research on wisdom has been growing rapidly. Approximately 2,000 papers on wisdom were published during the past decade, as listed on PubMed.

What is wisdom? Wisdom is a uniquely human and complex personality trait comprised of several specific components, including empathy and compassion, self-reflection and insight, emotional regulation, decisiveness in the midst of uncertainty, and spirituality. This definition is based on literature reviews, expert panel consensus, and qualitative studies.

There are several self-report scales for assessing wisdom that have been shown to have good psychometric properties, although there are no validated objective measures of wisdom at present. Certain areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex and limbic striatum, are involved in wisdom.

A number of randomized controlled trials have been published that tested the effects of various interventions to enhance components of wisdom, including empathy and compassion, emotional regulation, and spirituality. Some interventions are at the individual level; others involve groups. These interventions usually help people engage in behaviors that exercise their wisdom “muscle,” for example, by engaging in activities that improve emotional regulation by noticing positive events and savoring positive emotions. Examples of other strategies include cognitive behavior therapy, role-playing, mindfulness training, and keeping a gratitude diary. About half of these trials found that the interventions were effective with medium to large effect sizes, which is very promising!

Wisdom as an Antidote to Loneliness

One of the most striking findings in our research is that people with more wisdom, and particularly the subcomponent of compassion, tend to be less lonely. This means that wisdom is not just something to pursue for abstract or moral reasons, but because it can benefit your mental health and quality of life. What we are describing here is practical wisdom rather than theoretical wisdom.

Practical wisdom refers to strategies related to each component of wisdom that can help to not just survive a crisis, but also to grow from it. When we use practical wisdom, we translate those components into actionable steps that promote our physical and mental wellness and personal growth. In the context of COVID-19 and stipulated social distancing, these would include:

1. Emotional regulation: Don't panic. Accept reality while finding room for hope and positivity.

2. Self-reflection: Think about your strengths and limitations. For example, how can you stay socially connected while observing social distancing? Realize that social distancing only means physical distancing. You can connect with your loved ones using the phone, FaceTime, Zoom, or Facebook. Identify what you can do immediately and what new technologies you can learn.

3. Pro-social behaviors: Helping others helps oneself. In our qualitative research on loneliness, several older people said that when they helped others who needed help, they felt energized, happy, and less lonely.

4. Decisiveness amidst uncertainty: The current situation has created several moral dilemmas—for example, whether to keep working in jobs like emergency room health care providers or grocery store workers, which significantly increase the risk of infection to help others or remain financially stable. You need to make a rational decision for yourself based on all the information you have at that moment and hope that it will prove to be a good choice in the longer term, but ambivalence or second-guessing yourself is not useful.  

5. Spirituality: We have to care for all of humanity and beyond—animals and plants too. This gives a purpose to life and reduces everyday stresses. Your practice of spirituality may look different from others’—just think about how you can best connect to this aspect of yourself.

The best guide to wisdom is the serenity prayer. Let us seek the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference. That is practical wisdom!

References

Jeste DV, Lee EE: Emerging empirical science of wisdom: definition, measurement, neurobiology, longevity, and interventions. Harvard Rev Psychiatry. 2019 27:127-140.

Jeste DV, Lee EE, Cacioppo S: Battling the modern behavioral epidemic of loneliness: Suggestions for research and interventions. JAMA Psychiatry, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0027

Morlett Paredes A, Lee EE, Chik L, Gupta S, Palmer BW, Palinkas L, Kim HC, Jeste DV: Qualitative study of loneliness in a senior housing community: The importance of wisdom and other coping strategies. Aging and Mental Health, 2020 Jan 10:1-8. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2019.1699022

Treichler EBH, Glorioso D, Lee EE, Wu T, Tu X, Daly R, O’Brien C, Smith JL, Jeste DV: A pragmatic trial of a group intervention in senior housing communities to increase resilience. Int’l Psychogeriatrics, 32:173-182, 2020