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How Spirituality, Wisdom, and Mental Health Are Intertwined

Researchers add spirituality to an existing six-component wisdom index.

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Last year, Michael Thomas and Dilip Jeste of the University of California, San Diego introduced a new scale (Thomas et al., 2019) for assessing people's wisdom based on six common and measurable domains: acceptance of divergent perspectives, decisiveness, emotional regulation, prosocial behaviors (empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness), self-reflection or insight, and social decision-making.

The original San Diego Wisdom Scale (i.e., Jeste-Thomas Wisdom Index) contains 24 prompts such as "I remain calm under pressure," "I take time to reflect on my thoughts," "I enjoy being exposed to diverse viewpoints," "I cannot filter my negative emotions." Respondents are asked to rate the extent to which they agree or disagree with each statement using a 1-5 agreement scale, where 1 = Strongly disagree and 5 = Strongly agree.

This week, Jeste and Thomas added a seventh component of wisdom, spirituality, to their scale in a paper (Jeste, Thomas, et al., 2020) published in the January 2021 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

"There has historically been controversy about whether spirituality is a marker of wisdom," Jeste said in an October 22 news release. "Our findings show that spirituality is significantly associated with better mental health and well-being and may add to an individual's overall wisdom." Jeste is the senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

For this study, co-first authors Jeste, Thomas, and their colleagues collected data from almost two thousand U.S.-based adults (N = 1,786) between 20 and 82 years of age. Each participant completed the original 24-item wisdom scale and responded to additional prompts designed to measure spirituality and religiosity.

"All of the components included in our self-report-based measure correlated with the overall wisdom score, but to varying degrees," Michael Thomas, who is currently an assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University, said in the news release "The overall wisdom score had a much stronger association with prosocial behaviors than with spirituality. But still, spirituality was a significant indicator of wisdom."

"Spirituality does not require religious faith but is characterized by humility and ever-present connectedness to oneself or to others or to an entity that is transcendent, such as Mother Nature or God or the soul," Jeste added. "It helps reduce stress in many people and allows them to be more at peace, happier, and healthier."

The authors note that one limitation of this study is that the findings are cross-sectional; future longitudinal studies are needed to understand better how spirituality and other wisdom components are correlated with psychological and physical well-being. "It is important to study whether interventions that target wisdom and its components improve overall well-being and quality of life. Having evidence-based measures of wisdom, including spirituality, can help us objectively test these ideas," Thomas concluded.

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Dilip V. Jeste, Michael L. Thomas, Jinyuan Liu, Rebecca E. Daly, Xin M. Tu, Emily B.H. Treichler, Barton W. Palmer, Ellen E. Lee. "Is Spirituality a Component of Wisdom? Study of 1,786 Adults Using Expanded San Diego Wisdom Scale (Jeste-Thomas Wisdom Index)" Journal of Psychiatric Research (First available online: September 30, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2020.09.033

Michael L. Thomas, Katherine J. Bangen, Barton W. Palmer, Averria Sirkin Martin, Julie A. Avanzino, Colin A. Depp, Danielle Glorioso, Rebecca E. Daly, and Dilip V. Jeste. "A New Scale for Assessing Wisdom Based on Common Domains and a Neurobiological Model: The San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE)" Journal of Psychiatric Research (First available online: September 08, 2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.09.005

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