Research suggests wisdom is linked to happiness and mental health

While researchers agree that wisdom is too complex to be quantified and measured scientifically, new research suggests that it is a direct contributor to psychological well-being and happiness. The conclusion comes from a new review paper published in the May/June issue of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry which looked at previous studies measuring wisdom and its association with mental health.

New research suggests that wisdom is a direct contributor to psychological well-being and happiness.Radachynskyi Serhii | Shutterstock

Study authors Dilip V. Jeste, MD, and Ellen E. Lee, MD, of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging, University of California San Diego traced different aspects of wisdom to different parts of the brain. The authors begin their paper with a quote from Plato that reads, “Wisdom alone is the science of other sciences.”

Wisdom has important implications at both individual and societal levels and warrants further research as a major contributor to human thriving.”

‘A complex human trait’

The researchers start by defining wisdom, stating that it has been discussed differently across ages in different religions and philosophies. Over the last few decades research has focussed on assessing wisdom. The researchers write that just like other psychological parameters such as stress, resilience and consciousness can be measured, so can wisdom.

In their review they look at texts from ancient time to modern scientific research and thereby they have defined wisdom in their article as, “a complex human trait with several specific components: social decision making, emotion regulation, prosocial behaviors, self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty, decisiveness, and spirituality.”

The authors explored ancient religious and philosophical texts and their reference to wisdom. This includes “the Sebayt, Egyptian scrolls dating from 2000 to 1700 BC, and the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu philosophical/religious scripture… Old Testament books of Job, Psalms, and Proverbs.” They speak of ancient Eastern philosophers and their wisdom including “Confucius to Buddha”, ancient Greek philosophers, including “Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle”.

They explain that in modern times discussion of wisdom came in “Hall’s 1922 treatise Senescence: The Last Half of Life” followed by “Baltes and Smith” in Germany, and “Clayton and Birren” in the United States in the 1970s. It was the latter who first described measures to assess the level of wisdom.

The review traces the course of history of wisdom and its assessment across the globe. The authors write, “Openness to new experiences as a young adult and lifelong psychosocial growth were predictive of wisdom in old age, while emotional stability and extraverted personality were predictive of well-being in old age.”

‘Loss of wisdom has been observed in dementia’

Common methods used measurements of include the “Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale (3D-WS) and the Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale (SAWS).” These tools measure three dimensions of wisdom including “cognitive, reflective, and affective”. The researchers claim that all the research on wisdom reveals that it has a neurobiological basis and mainly two areas of the brain are affected.

These include the prefrontal cortex and the limbic striatum. The authors write, “Loss of wisdom has also been observed in frontotemporal dementia, a dementia that is initially characterized not by memory loss but by personality changes such as impulsivity, poor social awareness, disinhibition, antisocial behavior, and apathy.”

The scientists write that all research points to the fact the “wisdom is linked to better overall health, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, and resilience.” They explain that with age, despite failing health, wisdom seems to increase and this leads to better life satisfaction and quality of life.

The authors speak of the “Grandma hypothesis of wisdom” which describes a loss of fertility, followed by a decline in physical health but the elderly often help their children and grandchildren with their health, mental well being and fertility. This is an explanation of Grandma’s wisdom they add saying that it could have much to do with genetics as well as the environment.

Next, the researchers will investigate whether wisdom can be increased to improve quality of life. The authors say that a “greater emphasis [should be placed] on promoting wisdom through our educational systems from elementary to professional schools.”  

The team proposes development of wisdom saying a model of wisdom development would draw “from genetic, epigenetic, and environmental influences”. They write that certain genes from grandparents might inculcate positive psychological traits and propensity to develop wisdom.

There is a need to expand empirical research on wisdom, given its immense but largely untapped potential for enhancing mental health of individuals and promoting well-being of the society at large.”

Can wisdom benefit people with psychosomatic disorders?

This is not the first time that scientists have tried to understand the role of wisdom on mental health.

Authors M. Linden and colleagues from Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin, published an article in the German journal Psychotherapie, Psychosomatik, medizinische Psychologie titled, “Wisdom Attitudes and Coping In Life of Psychosomatic Patients.”

They assessed wisdom competencies and its effects in psychosomatic patients. For this they used for the first time the 12-WD scale to score the wisdom that covers 12 wisdom dimensions. The study included 202 patients from a department of psychosomatic medicine and asked them to fill a questionnaire with the scale.

The results showed that as wisdom scores rose there was a positive correlation with quality of life improvement factors such as “life satisfaction and age”. On the other hand those with lower wisdom scored had more negative beliefs in the justice system and also were more embittered.

Authors of the study concluded that using wisdom scores psychosomatic patients could be better assessed and it could also help show these patients how to better “appreciate wisdom attitudes” to cope better with life.

Schizophrenia and wisdom

Authors R. Van Patten from the Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Diego and colleagues published an article titled, “Assessment of 3-dimensional wisdom in schizophrenia: Associations with neuropsychological functions and physical and mental health,” in the February 2019 issue of the journal Schizophrenia Research.

They looked at the complex effects of wisdom on health and well being of people with Schizophrenic. They used the commonly used 3-dimensional wisdom scale on 65 stable adult outpatients with chronic schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder and compared them with 96 non-psychiatric participants.

Results showed that those with Schizophrenia had lower wisdom scores compared to those whop were control participants. Cognitive performance and multiple neurocognitive task performance among those with schizophrenia was higher when they had higher wisdom scores.

The researchers concluded that of the three domains – cognitive, reflective and affective, reflective wisdom was associated with better cognitive performance.

Interventions to enhance wisdom may have broad cognitive and mental and physical health benefits in individuals with chronic psychotic disorders.”

Sources:

Jeste, D. V. & Lee, E. E. (2019). The Emerging Empirical Science of Wisdom. Harvard Review of Psychiatry. doi:10.1097.

Linden, M., et al. (2019). Barbara's love. Nils NoackWisdom attitudes and life-management in psychosomatic patients. Psychother Psych Med. DOI:10.1055 / a-0813-2040.

Van Patten, R., et al. (2019). Assessment of 3-dimensional wisdom in schizophrenia: Associations with neuropsychological functions and physical and mental health. Schizophr Res. DOI:10.1016/j.schres.2019.01.022.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

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Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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