Old age brings creaky bones, memory lapses, and lower energy levels, but, according to science, going gray has its consolations. On average, the older we get, the happier and more self-confident we become. And, of course, according to just about all the world's philosophical traditions, the wiser we grow.
But according to a recent surge in the scientific study of wisdom, this important but hard-to-define quality isn't something that magically appears after a certain number of years of living. Instead, it is a way of thinking and making decisions that we can start learning at any age (or forget in moments of passion).
It is wrong, University of Waterloo psychologist Igor Grossman explains in a fascinating Aeon article on the new science of wisdom, to think of the trait "chiefly as an embodiment of fixed 'have-or-have-not' personality characteristics rather than a trait that varies with situation and other factors."
In short, even if you don't yet consider yourself particularly wise, you can still show flashes of wisdom and take action to try to actively become more wise. So what are the signs that you're making progress? Grossmann and others' research suggest these are signs that you're already well on your way to wisdom.
1. You often take others' perspectives.
At the heart of wisdom is the ability to make clear-headed, dispassionate decisions. We're generally awful at doing that when we're emotional. Those who are wise tame their feelings by stepping outside themselves and thinking about the situation from other perspectives. What would I say if this were happening to a friend, they might ask? Or, how does this situation look to the others involved? How does it impact them?
Research shows this skill for wiser decisions can both be taught and employed at any age. That's good news for those looking to cultivate wisdom, but it also means that if you already find yourself employing this technique, you can count yourself wise, at least sometimes.
2. You know how much you don't know.
Most of us think that the smartest people are those who know all the answers, but both some of the world's most successful people and a boatload of studies show that, in reality, the most intelligent among us are also the most aware of the limits of their own knowledge. One of the fastest ways to make wiser decisions is to nudge yourself to be more intellectually humble.
So if you often sense the vastness of your own ignorance and wonder if you have the intellectual horsepower to master your chosen field, that actually isn't a sign you're dumb. It's a sign you have at least one key foundation of wisdom.
3. You have a rich emotional life.
In the popular imagination, great wisdom is often portrayed as the ability to control your emotions. There is something to that--wisdom certainly entails not being carried away by impulsive thoughts or unhealthy obsessions. But according to new research, the wisest among us actually don't feel less, they feel more.
In a series of studies, Grossmann and his collaborators showed that wiser people actually experience and recognize a wider array of emotions than average. They're just able to keep those feelings in balance better.
Grossmann used pop culture references to sum up these results: "It seems that wise reasoning does not align with uniform emotional down-regulation, as portrayed by Mr. Spock. Rather, wise reasoning accompanies one's ability to recognize and balance a wide range of emotions, as portrayed by Yoda."
Taken together, all these signs suggest that wisdom is an approach to life that can be cultivated no matter how many gray hairs you may or may not have. And if you're already using these mental tools at least some of the time, you may be further along the road to wisdom than you suspected.