Monday, June 20, 2022

In their work, they found many participants high in well-being and low in wisdom and no participants high in wisdom and low in well-being

Looking Beyond Linear: A Closer Examination of the Relationship Between Wisdom and Wellbeing. Judith Glück, Nic M. Weststrate & Andreas Scherpf. Journal of Happiness Studies, Jun 18 2022.

Abstract: There has been some controversy about the relationship between wisdom and constructs of the well-being complex. Some wisdom researchers argue that the ability to maintain a high level of well-being, even in the face of very negative experiences, is a core characteristic of wisdom. Other researchers argue that the willingness of wise people to reflect on the darker sides of life might jeopardize well-being. Studies mostly found moderate positive correlations of well-being with self-report wisdom measures and negative, zero, or low positive correlations with open-ended measures of wisdom. This paper tests the hypothesis that the relationship between wisdom and well-being is triangular rather than linear, with highly wise people being high in well-being, but people high in well-being not necessarily being highly wise. A sample of 155 participants (age 23 to 90 years) completed four wisdom measures and three measures from the well-being complex. We analyzed both linear relationships (using correlations) and triangular relationships (using Necessary Condition Analysis). Correlations of well-being with open-ended measures of wisdom were mostly insignificant; correlations with self-report measures of wisdom were mostly significant. However, scatterplots showed the expected triangular relationships and Necessary Condition Analysis indicated medium to large effect sizes for both open-ended and self-report wisdom measures. In sum, our findings show that even if wise individuals think more deeply about difficult aspects of the human existence, they are still able to maintain high levels of well-being.


This paper analyzed the relationships between four different measures of wisdom and three different measures of the well-being complex (general life satisfaction, current life phase compared to “best” and “worst” life phase, and psychological well-being), reporting correlations and effect sizes from Necessary Condition Analysis (NCA).

Most Relationships Between Wisdom and Well-Being Are Triangular

Our first prediction was that relationships between wisdom and well-being would be triangular, especially for open-ended measures of wisdom. That is, highly wise individuals should be high in well-being, whereas individuals low in wisdom would show a wide range of levels of well-being. This prediction was largely supported; most scatterplots in Fig. 2 and the NCA results indicated a triangular pattern. The pattern was particularly clear for the two open-ended measures of wisdom, the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm and the MORE Life Experience Model, where we found a considerable number of participants high in well-being and low in wisdom, but no participants high in wisdom and low in well-being. Notably, most correlations between these two wisdom measures and the well-being variables were zero. As discussed earlier, a likely reason for the discrepancy between correlations and NCA results is the difference in the score distributions between the open-ended wisdom measures and the well-being measures. As Table 3 and Fig. 2 show, few participants scored high in the open-ended measures of wisdom, while many participants scored high in the well-being measures. This difference in distributions limits the size of possible correlations. Substantively, if many people are happy but few people are wise, then even if all wise people are happy, the correlation between happiness and wisdom will be low or zero. This was the pattern that the NCA results confirmed for the open-ended wisdom measures.

The two self-report measures of wisdom, the Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory and the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale, had score distributions more similar to those of the well-being measures, with most participants scoring in the upper half of the scale. Accordingly, the relationship with well-being was more linear, as indicated by mostly significant correlations. However, Fig. 2 and the NCA results showed that even for the self-report scales, there were many participants high in well-being and low in wisdom and no participants high in wisdom and low in well-being, at least for life satisfaction and the “life-phase ladder.” The differences between the three well-being measures will be discussed later.

In sum, our findings suggest that even if highly wise individuals are more willing to face the difficult aspects of the human existence than other people, they are still able to maintain high levels of well-being (Ardelt, 2019). These findings do not necessarily contradict the notion that wise individuals may be more willing than other people to consider the darker aspects of human existence (Baltes & Kunzmann, 2003; Staudinger & Glück, 2011). Weststrate and Glück (2017b) argued that there are three reasons why wise individuals may be high in well-being even though they do engage in these thoughts. First, wise individuals are experts at coping with life challenges; their experience has taught them to manage difficult situations and regulate negative emotions. Second, because of their experience with hardship and their awareness of uncertainty, wise individuals may appreciate small pleasures and relish good moments even during difficult times. Third, wise individuals know themselves well and have learned to live their lives in the way that is “right” for them, providing them with resources, such as friends and leisure activities, that can support them in challenging times. With respect to the current study, another relevant aspect is that all three well-being measures assess summative, overall evaluations of one’s life, life phase, or self. Conceivably, individuals could score high in these measures even while they are experiencing a considerable amount of negative affect in their daily life. People working in professions that regularly confront them with suffering or death, for example, may still experience high levels of eudaimonic well-being and life satisfaction. More fine-grained studies of everyday affect in relation to wisdom are needed to test this hypothesis.

We would like to mention one observation that we cannot investigate comprehensively with the present data. We noticed that the participants who scored highest in the open-ended measures of wisdom did not necessarily report the maximum possible values in the well-being measures –in Fig. 2, their dots tend to be slightly below the top of the scale. Our sample of high scorers is too small for an in-depth analysis of this phenomenon, but we believe that individuals high in open-ended measures of wisdom might use the response scales of self-report scales in a somewhat more modest or self-reflective way (Aldwin, 2009; Glück, 2018).

Relationships with Well-Being Are Similar for Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Wisdom Measures

Our second prediction was that non-cognitive components of wisdom would have stronger relationships with well-being than cognitive components. Unexpectedly, however, content of the wisdom measures seemed to be much less relevant for their relationship with well-being than type of measure. In fact, the BWP, which assesses cognitive aspects of wise thinking about theoretical life problems, showed the exact same pattern of zero correlations and medium to large NCA effect sizes with the three measures of well-being as the MORE interview, which assesses mostly non-cognitive aspects of wisdom from narratives about autobiographical life challenges. We consider it as quite remarkable that even the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm showed a clear triangular relationship with the well-being variables. In other words, all participants who displayed factual and procedural life knowledge, an awareness of the relativity and contextuality of people’s perspectives, and awareness of uncertainty and unpredictability described themselves as quite high in various facets of well-being. We believe that this finding supports the idea of a common core of cognitive and non-cognitive wisdom conceptions: although different conceptions and measures of wisdom tend to emphasize one or the other “side,” actual wisdom may require an integrative interaction of cognitive and non-cognitive components (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000; Glück & Weststrate, in press).

That said, some subdimensions of wisdom did show stronger relationships with well-being than others, but these differences did not always follow the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive subdimensions. For the BWP, NCA showed that procedural knowledge, value relativism, and contextualism had stronger relationships with well-being than factual knowledge and awareness of uncertainty. In the MORE interview, empathy and emotion regulation had larger NCA effect sizes than openness, reflectivity, and especially sense of mastery. In the 3DWS, the reflective dimension (a willingness to take different perspectives on issues) and the compassionate dimension were more strongly related to well-being, in terms of both correlations and NCA effect sizes, than the cognitive dimension (striving to understand life and learn from experiences). The ASTI, which measures self-transcendence without any subdimensions, was strongly related to well-being.

Thus, as expected, affective components of wisdom such as self-transcendence, compassion, and emotion regulation were quite strongly related to well-being. Unexpectedly, however, equally strong relationships with well-being were found for wisdom components reflecting an awareness of differences in perspectives, values, and contexts (BWP value relativism and contextualism, 3DWS reflective dimension). The weakest relationships with well-being were found for cognitive components referring to awareness of uncertainty and uncontrollability (BWP uncertainty, MORE sense of mastery), complex thinking and self-reflection (MORE reflectivity), and openness and curiosity (MORE openness and 3DWS cognitive dimension).

These differences between subdimensions should not be overinterpreted, especially as NCA results tend to be somewhat susceptible to the presence of outliers (Dul, 2021). Still, it seems highly interesting that well-being is related not only to affective components of wisdom, but also to a general awareness and tolerance of differences between people. Arguably, individuals who consider diversity and individual differences as a source of new insights and ideas are happier and more at peace with their life than people who consider divergent perspectives as a challenge to their own views. For wise individuals, well-being may be closely related to positive and enriching social relationships (Igarashi et al., 2018; Weststrate & Glück, 2017b).

Wisdom Is Related to Many Aspects of Well-Being

Our third prediction was that the three well-being measures would differ in their relationships with wisdom. We expected the strongest relationship for psychological well-being (Ryff & Keyes, 1995), which represents an eudaimonic conception of a good and meaningful life. We also expected relatively strong relationships between wisdom and general life satisfaction (Pavot et al., 1998), a broad evaluation of one’s past, current, and future life. We expected to find a somewhat weaker relationship between wisdom and our adapted version of the Cantril ladder, where participants rated their current life phase relative to the best and worse phases of their life.

Our results partly supported these predictions. The open-ended measures of wisdom had similar relationships with all three well-being measures. The self-report measures were most strongly related to psychological well-being. For the ASTI, this makes a lot of sense given the considerable conceptual overlap between self-transcendence and psychological well-being, especially with respect to self-acceptance and personal growth (Koller et al., 2017). The dimensions of the 3DWS are somewhat more distant from psychological well-being, but there certainly is some overlap especially with the PWB subdimensions of personal growth, positive relations to others, and autonomy. The relationships of the self-report wisdom measures with the two other well-being measures did not differ much; if anything, the correlations with the life-phase ladder were somewhat higher than those with life satisfaction. In other words, the extent to which participants considered their current life phase as the best was somewhat more strongly related to wisdom than general life satisfaction. One could speculate that highly wise individuals tend to consider their current life phase as their best because are aware of how they have grown and developed over the course of their life.

NCA: A Promising New Approach for Analyzing a Frequent Type of Relationship

Finally, we would like to add some comments on Necessary Condition Analysis as a novel approach for analyzing nonlinear relationships between psychological variables. In spite of some technical problems that still need to be resolved, such as the influence of outliers (see Dul, 2021), we consider NCA as a highly promising tool for identifying a type of relationships among psychological variables that has long been overlooked. Notably, that type of relationships is not limited to situations where one variable is theoretically a necessary condition for the other. The case of well-being and wisdom is a good example: Technically, our NCA analyses tested the hypothesis that high well-being is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for high wisdom. Theoretically, however, we do not believe that this is the only plausible account of the relationship. It does seem likely that a minimum level of well-being is necessary for people to gain wisdom from experiences; Staudinger and Kunzmann (2005) argued that “a certain level of adjustment is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition for growth” (p. 321). Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory, for example, suggests that the experience of happiness and joy is necessary for exploring different perspectives and gaining new insights (Fredrickson, 2001). At the same time, high well-being could also be an outcome of wisdom—because wisdom enables individuals to see the good things even in bad things, for example, or because wisdom entails effective emotion regulation. Also, high well-being may co-develop with wisdom, as some of the factors that foster the development of wisdom may also foster well-being (Weststrate & Glück, 2017b). At the same time, well-being is clearly also attainable through other developmental pathways that result in high well-being without high wisdom (see also Bauer et al., 2019). The cross-sectional data analyzed here do not allow us to distinguish between these different accounts of the relationship between wisdom and well-being. Statistically, however, all of them lead to the same prediction: that high wisdom is associated with high well-being, but low wisdom is not necessarily associated with low well-being. In this way, NCA as a purely descriptive instrument for testing the “triangularity” of relationships could be used to test a broader range of predictions than just those where one variable is theoretically a necessary condition for another.

In sum, the findings of this study indicate that wise individuals are happy, satisfied, and at peace with themselves and their lives. Even as they are willing to look into the darker sides of the human existence and certainly have their darker moments, they know how to live well and they live the life that is right for them. Many individuals who are not particularly wise, however, are equally happy and satisfied with their lives. The complex, dynamic relationship between wisdom and well-being remains an exciting topic for future research.

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