Wisdom and the Psychology of Well-being


  Wisdom and the Psychology of Well-being

In recent decades, scholars in the field of psychology have sought to broaden their understanding of human well-being and the role of happiness in living a meaningful life. One branch of this research draws on ancient traditions such as Buddhism and modern thinkers such as Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to define wisdom as a kind of inner peace that comes from letting go, seeing clearly, learning from one’s experiences, responding to everyone with compassion, and finding joy in simplicity.

This article provides an overview of how psychological wisdom is related to mental health and what you can do about it.

Many people find contentment in hobbies or other things they enjoy doing for themselves; but many also find it when they make themselves available for others.

An individual’s development from an infant to adult includes many changes: a person gains knowledge of the world; learns when and how to reciprocate and what others want from him; has a clearer picture of his own identity; experiences ambiguous feelings; and makes decisions about how to act.

Decisions involve weighing evidence for or against options. The power to make decisions, in other words, comes from learning what is true, and developing the skill of forming reliable beliefs. Two sorts of beliefs are involved: beliefs about the way things are that tell you which outcomes are possible or probable, and beliefs about yourself that tell you how things will go if you take certain courses of action.

Knowing your own hopes and fears helps you avoid acting on them impulsively. Knowing what others want and need from you helps you respond to them appropriately, which can reduce stress. Knowing how much power you have in a situation helps you take responsibility for your actions, which also reduces stress. In addition to improving the quality of your own life, a balanced approach to decision-making can improve the lives of people around you. The ability to make wise decisions is essential if we are to live effectively and well.

When we express our views honestly without worrying about what others may think or how it will affect them, other people listen more carefully and we understand each other better. When we are open about our feelings, we have less anxiety and can more easily express how we feel.

One core theme of Buddhist thought is that true bliss is achieved when all experience is accepted with full acceptance. The Buddha’s advice that one should seek to meet others’ needs was meant not only for the recipient, but also for the giver (see maitri). By seeing others as sacred, or worthy of being treated as such, the perfectionist approach to personality encourages giving sacrificially without expecting anything in return.

Self-reliance is a central theme of the Eastern spiritual tradition, and plays a role in Western spiritual teachings as well. It is often thought that an individual who depends on others for support or self-definition is less productive than one who can determine her own life situation. This idea has the disadvantage of implying that independence is an unattainable ideal; but it also offers the advantage of permitting people to make the best use of all possibilities open to them, and may provide a means for fostering psychological health by encouraging citizens to take responsibility for their lives.

To evaluate each of these four strategies independently, it will be useful to look at some cases where they have been tried out in surveys and studies of happiness.

In one well-known study [Achieving Life Balance through Effective Control of Inner States], the psychologist Thomas K. Brown asked volunteers who were about to begin a period of prolonged isolation in an underground cave to choose one person with whom they would like to spend time on the phone, and another with whom they wanted the experimenters to keep in contact. In both cases, volunteers chose people who were close friends but who were not very similar to themselves. Then, when volunteers had become comfortable with life in their small underground living quarters, they received a phone call from the person of their choice; and it turned out that being with someone similar worked best for them as a means of coping with their situation. The researchers concluded that people can derive a great deal of comfort from being with people who are similar to them.

The same experiment was conducted with volunteers living in the desert, where they were unable to tell anyone what the researchers had done to them. Of the volunteers who had a partner with whom they could tell their story, all chose people with whom they felt very close but who were also very different from themselves.

In perhaps even more striking results, Brown and his colleagues asked fifty volunteers in another isolation experiment to choose one of four partners whom they would like to have play an important role in their lives: an intellectual mentor, a romantic companion, a friend with whom they would discuss their work experiences, or a casual social companion. In almost all cases, volunteers chose the intellectual mentor or a social companion, and most people found that the friendship in which they felt most understood was with someone who was radically different from themselves.

One difficulty is that it is possible to be fundamentally misunderstood no matter who you are with. Another is that others may disappoint us, even when their intentions are good.

There is some evidence that feeling understood by someone else leads to an increase in self-esteem; but there is also evidence that being misunderstood can lead to more aggressive behavior. It seems likely that a person who has both low self-esteem and excessively high expectations of others is at risk of depression or other mental illness.

A key to the balance between receiving understanding and feeling misunderstood is the ability of each person to identify her own areas of need. If we feel understand by someone, being criticized may be hurtful. If we don’t feel understood at all, knowing what others think can be disturbing.

In principle, people could be taught these skills in workshops designed to help them develop the balance between needs for understanding and negotiations with others. But they are not, because most people already have a good sense of how well they are being understood. This is not because they are more observant than other people, or less active in their own lives. But it is because social interactions are the most important part of our emotional and mental health.

When we try to make a good impression on someone who has little to do with us, we risk feeling desperate or inadequate if we don’t get what we want. When we try to give someone something without expecting anything in return, we risk feeling like a burden, or worse yet like a source of danger.

Conclusion: the need for understanding

At certain times and places in our lives, it is important to negotiate with others. But most of the time, we need to be understood by them. Understanding others is a skill that needs to be cultivated through education and training.


Working with food

The third approach to personality measurement is the use of questionnaires taken from naturalistic studies. A study of this kind can yield fascinating insights into how people work with their environment, including their relationship with food. Food has always played a central role in religious rituals and festivals; and modern society has devised a variety of ways in which food can have an impact on people’s lives.

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