Making 2021 the Year of Wisdom
The benefits of becoming wiser as individuals and as a society.
Posted November 24, 2020
It may seem premature to talk about New Year’s Resolution when the holiday season has barely started. However, planning for an entire new year cannot just begin on January 1. Planning also helps take one’s mind away from the current stresses that seem overwhelming. Although the drama and trauma of the 2020 presidential election is nearing its end and coronavirus vaccines seem to be around the corner, for so many people it feels like we are still teetering on the cusp of calamity, as stressed and anxious as ever.
It does not help, of course, that the coronavirus pandemic still rampages, not merely unabated but arguably worse than ever. A national Harris Poll conducted in October on behalf of the American Psychological Association, for example, found that nearly 8 in 10 adults in the United States said the coronavirus pandemic was a significant source of stress in their lives; 3 in 5 said the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them. It will be many months before a majority of the people receive a vaccine. In the meantime, there will be no easy solutions or quick remedies, though there are obvious, immediate actions to take (masking, social distancing, good hygiene).
These are things we can do and things we can anticipate, but neither will significantly improve the current environment in which fear and anger, fueled by isolation and the seeming collapse of civility and social connection, have taken such a grasp of our lives.
Wisdom as a Trait
Where are the wise leaders in all fields of life when we need them most, the people to show us by observation and example how to address and overcome our current issues and hardships?
We would argue that they are all around, from the highest levels of government to family and friends to yourself. Of course, the person we have the most control over is ourselves. By actively working toward wisdom as individuals, we also work toward a wiser, happier society.
Wisdom is a complex personality trait comprised of specific components: empathy and compassion, control over emotions, the ability to reflect on one’s behavior, accepting diversity of perspectives, wise advising, and spirituality. The biological underpinnings of these components exist within us all, though clearly they are more developed and functional in some people. Wisdom is the aggregate functioning of multiple regions of the brain. Wisdom grows when we engage and exercise all of these regions, from the frontal lobes to the amygdala and the limbic system.
Nonetheless we all possess the capacity to become wiser, and not simply as an artifact of accumulated years. Wisdom often comes with age, but as Oscar Wilde wryly noted, sometimes age comes along. But to do so, we must consciously work at it, to better ourselves, our lives and those of others.
The pandemic and its repercussions upon the economy and our social lives have profoundly exacerbated already existing problems like stress, loneliness, substance abuse and worsening mental health. The shift to working remotely and the pandemic-related requirements of quarantining, self-isolation, and reduced social contact have accelerated a decades-long trend of more and more Americans feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. Indeed, the health insurer Cigna reported earlier this year that it found a nearly 13 percent rise in loneliness since 2018 when it conducted its first survey. Rates of substance abuse, including heroin and opioids, continue to rise, as do suicides, especially among young people.
These are all tremendous social and public health problems that demand and require thoughtful, organized action at all levels of government and public service. But it’s not only up to politicians, doctors, scientists, or others to help us now, in this moment. We can look to ourselves and to those around us.
In our work and that of others, wisdom has been empirically found to be an antidote to much of what ails us in terms of stress, anxiety, loneliness, loss of resilience, and more. Tapping our innate wisdom—and building upon it—can go far toward helping each of us cope with this troubled year, and work toward a better future.
Enhancing One’s Wisdom
Nurturing your wisdom begins by examining one’s relationships with the components of wisdom (Jeste: Wiser, 2020).
Pro-social behaviors are paramount. You cannot be wise without compassion and empathy for others. In the aftermath of a bitter and divisive election, it is too easy to disparage and disdain those who were on “the other side.” It is too easy to forget that they are people whose aspirations and worries are likely much the same as yours. If we—as individuals, families, or a society—are to attain all that we seek, we need each other. It is an effort that requires conscious persistence and good faith; talking rather than arguing; listening more than talking; accepting that in our differences there is commonality; and working toward solutions that honor the needs of all.
How to behave more wisely, and in doing so inspire wise behavior in others, is not necessarily complicated. Some acts may already be a part of your life, such as belonging to communities or organizations that pursue the common good, giving to or participating in charitable causes, running errands for immunocompromised neighbors, or attending church or similar gatherings that empower a greater sense of spirituality, both individually and in a larger sense.
Practical Wisdom in Daily Life
The fast-developing science of wisdom has identified numerous proven or potential interventions to promote or accelerate wisdom, but there are simple, individual behaviors as well that people can do within their own lives and circumstances to become wiser, faster. We list a few of these actions below.
1. Strive to be positive. Optimism is a remarkable buffer to adversity. Remember that you can simultaneously grieve loss and experience sadness while having hope and optimism for the future.
2. Make decisions based on the best, reasoned evidence you have access to at that time, and then get on with it. Indecision is effectively making a decision too. And if the decision proves wrong, proceed accordingly and don’t dwell on the past. Realize that life is always uncertain and unpredictable. Grant yourself grace by acknowledging that you have done your best even when things don’t work out.
3. Reflect on what you do and what you have done. Learn from your mistakes; forgive those mistakes. We are all fallible, and in that realization, we find compassion for ourselves and for others.
4. Focus your energies in the now. The pandemic is not ending anytime soon, nor are its consequences. A Buddhist meditation says, “The past is already gone. The future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.” If we take positive action, whether it is as simple as reaching out to a lonely co-worker or chronicling what we appreciate in a gratitude journal, we will make our own future better.
5. Connect with others who are struggling. We can benefit each other through a simple phone call, decreasing the loneliness gripping the world. Listen to others and seek to understand them at their most complicated. Look for ways to be ‘the helper,’ as Mr. Rogers said. By helping others, we help ourselves find meaning, understanding, and growth.
This is an age when we need wisdom more than ever. We just need to find it and enhance it within ourselves. Wiser citizens make a wiser society. Our own personal wisdom development can have cascading effects onto our loved ones, neighbors, and beyond, eventually influencing the most powerful institutions. This could be our new year’s resolution. Let us put behind us the darkness of 2020, and resolve to make 2021 the Year of Becoming Wiser—both as individuals and as a society.
Jeste, Dilip, with LaFee, Scott. Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good. Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado, 2020.