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If you look around in your friend group, it seems like everyone has a role. There’s the funny one, the quiet one, the smart one, the one who’s good with numbers. But research shows that it’s the wise one who may have a leg up on mental wellness.
“Wisdom measures…have been shown to be associated with a variety of positive outcomes such as happiness, mental and physical health, and self-rated successful aging,” according to a report by researchers Dilip V. Jeste, MD, of the University of California San Diego, and Michael Thomas of Colorado State University.
A high score on a wisdom survey such as the one they developed suggests you may have greater levels of optimism and resilience, and less depression and loneliness. It might also be associated with graceful aging.
“We need wisdom for surviving and thriving in life,” says Jeste.
What is wisdom?
In Sanskrit, the word jnana can be translated as “wisdom.” It’s different from what we might call “book smarts,” which we associate with thinking or cognition. It’s more than gaining deep knowledge through study of philosophy or scriptures. And even svadyaya, self-study, is only part of the equation.
“Wisdom is a knowledge or understanding that we gain as a result of having seen or perceived the world directly. It is understanding gained through careful examination of direct experience,” writes Stephen Cope in The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Wisdom. Cope, a psychotherapist and senior Kripalu yoga teacher, says, “Above all, wisdom is a practical knowledge about how things work—how life works. It is the kind of knowledge that makes us more skillful in living.”
How scientists measure wisdom
Despite the intangible nature of wisdom, scientists have been developing increasingly effective ways to measure it. Some use the San Diego Wisdom Scale developed by Jeste, which includes questions designed to assess the seven attributes associated with wisdom:
- self-reflection, being able to observe your own thoughts and behaviors
- prosocial behaviors, such as empathy, compassion, and altruism
- emotional regulation, or being able to manage your feelings
- acceptance of diverse perspectives, including other people’s beliefs and value systems
- decisiveness, the ability to make timely choices
- social advising such as giving rational and helpful advice to others
- spirituality, which “measures connectedness with oneself, with the nature, or with the transcendent….”
Earlier versions of the survey didn’t include the spirituality questions. “There is controversy about whether spirituality is a marker of wisdom,” says Jeste in a 2021 article in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. That’s despite the fact that centuries of faith tradition equates the two traits. When his team added spirituality questions to the survey, they found that it helped make the wisdom assessment more accurate.
In 2021, the team tested the effectiveness of a seven-item survey. “Shorter doesn’t mean less valid,” he says. “We selected the right type of questions to get important information that…supports our previous data that wisdom correlates with health and longevity.” Researchers still use the longer version of the survey, but they incorporate the seven-question version in other studies or use it in clinical settings with individuals.
How do you rate on wisdom?
Want to know where you rate on the wisdom scale? You can take the 28-item Jeste-Thomas Wisdom Index. The test takes less than 10 minutes and provides an immediate score. You rate yourself on how much you agree or disagree with statements such as: “Others look to me to help them make choices,” “I am okay with others having morals and values other than my own,” and “I am good at perceiving how others are feeling.”
And if it turns out that you’re not as wise as you’d like to be, don’t worry. Studies support what yoga practitioners have always known: meditation and contemplative practices create an environment in which wisdom can grow and flourish. Growing wiser may just take a little practice.
Kyle Houseworth is a former assistant editor at Yoga Journal.