How is wisdom related to well-being? Are very wise people happier, more satisfied with their lives; do they experience more meaning and purpose in their lives than most of us do? There has been some controversy about the relationship between wisdom and variables of the well-being complex, such as happiness, life satisfaction, and eudaimonic well-being. Modern philosophical accounts consistently emphasize that one of the key characteristics of wisdom is knowing how to live well (e.g., Grimm, 2015; Kekes, 1983; Nozick, 1989; Ryan, 2012). Although philosophers make a point of not specifying criteria for living well, one could argue that some variables of the well-being complex, such as being satisfied with one’s life, having positive and enriching relationships with others, or pursuing self-defined and worthy goals, should be characteristic of living well. In the field of wisdom psychology, some scholars, most prominently Monika Ardelt (e.g., Ardelt, 2019), have argued 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. In contrast, other researchers have argued that the willingness of wise people to reflect on the darker sides of human existence and their ability to see through positive illusions might jeopardize, not bolster, well-being (Staudinger & Glück, 2011; Staudinger & Kunzmann, 2005).
Part of this controversy can be explained by differences in how researchers conceptualize wisdom. Broadly speaking, some models of wisdom focus on wise thinking, while others focus on wise personality, values, and affect (e.g., Bauer et al., 2019; Glück & Weststrate, in press; Grossmann et al., 2020). It seems plausible that wisdom viewed as a cognitive quality—complex and multiperspectival thinking about difficult questions of life—would be less strongly and less positively related to well-being than wisdom viewed as a quality of personality, affect, and value orientations. In the following, we briefly review the most prominent conceptions and measure of wisdom from both groups and the empirical evidence concerning their relationships with measures of subjective and psychological well-being. We focus our review on “classical” measures of the well-being complex, such as subjective well-being (e.g., life satisfaction, positive and negative affect; Diener, 1984) and psychological well-being (e.g., purpose in life, personal growth, autonomy; Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Keyes, 1995). A review of relationships between wisdom and a broader range of well-being-related measures (including, for example, ego development and emotion regulation) is presented by Ardelt (2019).
Conceptions of subjective well-being focus on hedonic aspects of happiness, i.e., on pleasure and positive affect, and on more generalized appraisals of the affective quality of one’s life such as life satisfaction. Conceptions of psychological well-being take a eudaimonic approach, looking at the psychological experiences that make individual lives meaningful. It seems likely that aspects of eudaimonic well-being such as value-related purpose in life, meaningful activities, positive relationships, and an orientation towards growth would be more closely related to wisdom than hedonic aspects. Weststrate and Glück (2017b) have argued, however, that highly wise individuals might also be higher in hedonic well-being than other people in spite of, or even because of, their experience and willingness to engage with the more difficult sides of life. Arguably, as highly wise individuals are aware of the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, they have learned to appreciate and relish even small pleasures, and as they know a lot about life and about themselves and are quite independent of external reinforcement, they tend to live their lives in accordance with their personal needs and priorities.
Models of Wisdom, Measures of Wisdom, and Relationships with Well-Being
Cognitive Conceptions of Wisdom
The first psychological research program on wisdom was started in the 1980s at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany. In the Berlin Wisdom Model, Paul Baltes and colleagues defined wisdom as expert knowledge about the fundamental pragmatics of life (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000). According to these authors, wise thinking about difficult life problems is characterized by five criteria: (1) factual and (2) procedural knowledge about the issue at hand, (3) value relativism (acknowledging and accepting the fact that people have different values and goals), (4) lifespan contextualism (taking historical, cultural, and individual context into account in interpreting people’s behavior), and (5) recognition and management of uncertainty (being aware of the unpredictability of life and considering it when making decisions). To measure wisdom, Baltes and colleagues developed the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm (BWP; Staudinger et al., 1994). In a think-aloud setting, participants are presented with brief descriptions of difficult life problems; response transcripts are rated for the five criteria.
In other words, the Berlin wisdom model is a largely cognitive-oriented conception of wisdom that focuses on how individuals think about theoretical life problems. Table 1 reviews empirical findings on relationships of BWP scores with variables of the well-being complex. [Note that Mickler and Staudinger (2008) factor-analyzed the psychological well-being subscales (Ryff & Keyes, 1995) and labeled one of the two resulting factors “subjective well-being;” we still subsumed both factors under psychological well-being.] While results vary somewhat across studies, correlations of the BWP with subjective well-being are mostly small or zero. Interestingly, Kunzmann and Baltes (2003) found small negative correlations of the BWP with positive affect (r = − 0.17) and negative affect (r = − 0.13), but a positive correlation (r = 0.28) with affective involvement (e.g., feeling interested, attentive, or inspired). They argued that “[t]hese findings correspond to the theoretical notion that wisdom involves adherence to the reality principle (i.e., motivation to explore and understand the complexity of reality) rather than the pleasure principle (i.e., motivation to maximize pleasant experiences)” (Kunzmann & Baltes, 2003, p. 1114). Among the components of psychological well-being, personal growth had the comparatively strongest relationship with the BWP in two of the four studies; correlations with the other subscales of the Psychological Well-Being Scale are mostly around zero. Interestingly, Wink and Staudinger (2016) found by far the highest correlation (r = 0.55) between a growth factor of psychological well-being and the BWP. One possible explanation is that these authors studied an older sample with a narrower age range (68–77 years) than the other studies using the BWP; the link between wisdom and well-being may be stronger in old age (see, e.g., Ardelt & Edwards, 2016; Ardelt & Jeste, 2018).
Ursula Staudinger and colleagues have distinguished general wisdom (i.e., the wisdom people have about people and life in general) from personal wisdom (i.e., the wisdom people have about themselves and their own life; Staudinger, 2019; Staudinger et al., 2005). They proposed a model of personal wisdom that consists of five components parallel to the Berlin model: self-knowledge (knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, feelings, and motives), heuristics for growth and self-regulation (having a repertoire of strategies for dealing with and learning from difficult situations), self-relativism (being willing and able to take an “outside perspective” on oneself), interrelating the self (being aware of the causes of one’s own feelings and behaviour and one’s relatedness to other people), and tolerance of ambiguity (recognizing, accepting, and managing the uncertainties and uncontrollabilities in one’s life). Thus, while this model of personal wisdom involves some non-cognitive, especially emotional aspects, it still has a clear focus on how people think about these aspects. To measure personal wisdom, Mickler and Staudinger (2008) proposed an interview-based measure that focuses on participants’ strengths and weaknesses as a friend. As in the BWP, responses are rated with respect to the five criteria. As Table 1 shows, Mickler and Staudinger (2008) found zero correlations of this measure of personal wisdom with indicators of both subjective and psychological well-being.
Igor Grossmann and colleagues (e.g., Grossmann, 2017; Grossmann et al., 2020) have conducted a highly productive research program on wise reasoning, which is characterized by metacognitive capacities such as epistemic humility, considering and balancing multiple perspectives, and adapting to different contexts (Grossmann et al., 2020). Importantly, Grossmann and colleagues conceive of wisdom as situationally variable rather than as a stable trait; they have demonstrated that wise reasoning shows considerable intraindividual variability (Grossmann, 2017; Grossmann et al., 2016). To measure wise reasoning, Grossmann and colleagues have developed vignette-based open-ended measures (e.g., Grossmann et al., 2013) as well as the Situational Wise Reasoning Scale (SWIS), a self-report scale that assesses wise reasoning with respect to a specific past situation (Brienza et al., 2018). For a vignette-based measure, Grossmann et al. (2013) reported a correlation of r = 0.17 with life satisfaction, and, interestingly, somewhat higher negative correlations with negative affect and depressive brooding. Using the SWIS, Grossmann et al. (2016) found that thinking more wisely was correlated intraindividually (but not interindividually) with more intense positive emotions.
In sum, measures that focus on wise thinking tend to have zero or relatively small correlations with variables of the well-being complex—with the possible exception of personal growth, a subscale of the psychological well-being scale that looks at whether individuals see themselves as constantly developing and view new experiences as opportunities for growth and learning. According to the correlations reviewed in Table 1, individuals who are able to think about complex life problems in ways that are considered wise—being aware of the limitations of one’s own knowledge, the multiplicity of possible perspectives and values, and the importance of context—do not generally seem to be much happier, more satisfied with their lives, or higher in psychological components of well-being than individuals who are less able to think wisely, although one study suggests that the relationship between cognitive aspects of wisdom and growth-related aspects of well-being may be stronger in older adults (Wink & Staudinger, 2016). Intraindividually, wise reasoning may accompany elevated positive affect, although the direction of this relationship is unclear. Alternatively, people might be better able to reason wisely when they are in a more positive emotional state (Glück & Weststrate, in press).
As mentioned earlier, researchers from the Berlin group have argued that cognitively wiser individuals may engage more deeply with the darker sides of our existence than less wise individuals, which might even suggest a negative relationship between wisdom and well-being (Kunzmann & Baltes, 2003; Staudinger & Glück, 2011; Staudinger & Kunzmann, 2005). The evidence for that claim, however, comes from only one study (Kunzmann & Baltes, 2003) that only looked at relationships between wisdom and affect.
Non-Cognitive Conceptions of Wisdom
Since the early 2000s, a growing number of psychological wisdom conceptions have been developed that focus less on wise thinking and more on wise personality, motivational, and affective characteristics, i.e., on how wise people experience life and its challenges (Glück & Weststrate, 2021). Most prominently, Monika Ardelt (2003, 2004) argued that wisdom is more than a way of thinking because it is deeply rooted in personal emotional experiences. Ardelt (2003) defined wisdom as a combination of three personality dimensions. The cognitive dimension describes a desire for a deep understanding of life and other people. The reflective dimension describes a willingness to look at issues from different perspectives, include looking at one’s own behavior from the perspective of others. The affective or, in more recent publications, compassionate dimension describes a deep concern for other people and humanity at large. As mentioned earlier, Ardelt considers a high level of well-being as a core characteristic of highly wise individuals; she has argued that “[W]ise individuals have gained the equanimity to preserve subjective well-being and inner peace even when confronted with hardship and adversity in life” (Ardelt, 2019, p. 606). Ardelt (2003) developed the Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale (3DWS), a 39-item self-report scale that assesses the three personality dimensions. Using the 3DWS, Ardelt and colleagues have conducted the largest research program to date on relationships between wisdom and well-being. As Table 2 shows, they have quite consistently found relatively strong relationships, with far more correlations above r = 0.40 than for any of the cognitive wisdom measures.
Jeffrey Dean Webster’s conceptualization of wisdom focuses on people’s willingness to gain insights from life experiences and to apply those insights for the good of themselves and others (Webster, 2003, 2007). According to Webster, wisdom is characterized by life experience, a willingness to reminisce and reflect on experiences, openness to experiences and ideas, emotional regulation, and humor. The Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale (SAWS; Webster, 2003, 2007), measures these five components of wisdom. As Table 2 shows, correlations with well-being tend to be somewhat lower than for the 3DWS, but SAWS scores are clearly positively related to well-being.
Michael R. Levenson and colleagues (2005; Aldwin et al., 2019) have proposed a conception of wisdom that is quite closely related to well-being. They argue that the core characteristic of wisdom is self-transcendence: accepting oneself as one is, overcoming one’s ego, being independent of external sources of self-esteem such as power or fame, and feeling connected to others and the world at large. The Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory (ASTI; Levenson et al., 2005; for a more recent version see Koller et al., 2017) is a self-report scale that measures wisdom as self-transcendence. Interestingly, in spite of its conceptual overlap with well-being, correlations of the ASTI with well-being do not seem to be higher than those of other self-report measures of wisdom.
The San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE; Thomas et al., 2019) measures six components of wisdom that are assumed to have a neurobiological basis (Meeks & Jeste, 2009): social advising, decisiveness, emotional regulation, insight, pro-social behaviors, and tolerance for divergent values. As Table 2 shows, correlations of the SD-WISE with aspects of well-being differ markedly across the two available studies, with, for example, an insignificant correlation with depressive symptoms found by Thomas et al. (2019) and a correlation of − 0.49 found by Jeste et al. (2021).
In sum, Table 2 suggests that the correlations of non-cognitive wisdom measures with variables of the well-being complex are generally significant and higher than those of cognitive wisdom measures, but there is considerable variability between studies. Correlations with subjective well-being are typically in the 0.30 to 0.50 range for the 3DWS; the other wisdom measures show more variability. Correlations with psychological well-being (PWB) vary considerably between studies and between PWB subscales, with relatively high correlations for personal growth and somewhat more variability for the other subscales.
In sum, some recent conceptions of wisdom put less focus on cognitive aspects, such as knowledge and expertise, and more focus on non-cognitive aspects, such as openness, compassion, emotion regulation, humor, or self-transcendence. Conceptually, it makes sense that those qualities would be more closely related to well-being than wisdom-related ways of thinking, and as Table 2 shows, these measures indeed tend to show higher correlations with well-being.
These findings may bring up the question whether cognitive and non-cognitive measures of wisdom even assess the same basic construct. Recently, Judith Glück and colleagues have aimed to integrate cognitive and non-cognitive models of wisdom (see also Bauer et al., 2019, for a different account of wisdom as a combination of complex thinking and an eudaimonic orientation). Glück and Weststrate (in press) have argued that in challenging real-life situations, non-cognitive components of wisdom such as emotion regulation, openness, and a concern for a common good are necessary for individuals to be able to access their wisdom-related cognitive capacities. In other words, even if cognitive and non-cognitive components of wisdom are not strongly related in population samples, they may come together in particularly wise individuals. The MORE Life Experience Model (Glück & Bluck, 2013; Glück et al., 2019) is a theory of the development of wisdom that proposes that wisdom-related knowledge and reasoning capacities develop as people reflect on challenging life experiences; non-cognitive resources such as openness, reflectivity, or empathy are necessary for gaining wisdom-fostering insights from such experiences. The MORE resources are measured using interviews about difficult autobiographical experiences (Glück et al., 2019). Relationships between the MORE wisdom resources and variables of the well-being complex will be reported in this paper.
The Potential Role of Method Variance
The considerable difference in size of correlations between Tables 1 and 2 is likely to reflect the substantive difference between conceptions of wisdom as mostly a cognitive capacity and conceptions of wisdom as mostly a non-cognitive quality involving personality, motivational, or affective characteristics. As discussed earlier, if wisdom is largely a way of thinking about life and its challenges, wisdom might be unrelated or perhaps, in some situations, even negatively related to well-being. If wisdom is largely a characteristic of personality and affect that leads to an open-minded, caring, and emotionally balanced outlook on life, as non-cognitive conceptions of wisdom suggest, then it should be substantially positively correlated with well-being.
It is important to note, however, that part of the differences in correlations in Tables 1 and 2 may also be caused by method variance (Glück, 2018). The non-cognitive measures of wisdom in Table 2 are all self-report scales (overview in Webster, 2019), as are the variables of the well-being complex. Most self-report scales typically assess people’s broad, decontextualized views of themselves, as do the typical well-being measures. In our experience, self-report scales that measure positively valued constructs are almost always correlated, with the common variance representing a general positivity of individuals’ self-images. Also, self-report measures of both well-being and wisdom tend to have somewhat skewed distributions, with few people scoring below the respective scale midpoints. Some researchers have argued that that if wisdom involves self-reflection and self-criticism, then, paradoxically, individuals may actually describe themselves less positively in self-report scales than less wise people do (Aldwin, 2009; Glück, 2018).
On the other hand, all cognitive wisdom measures listed in Table 1 except the Situated Wise Reasoning Scale are open-ended measures where people are presented with a wisdom-requiring problem or question and asked to produce a response; responses are then scored for pre-defined wisdom criteria (overview in Kunzmann, 2019). That is, these measures do not assess people’s views of themselves but the way people actually think (and talk or write) about specific life problems. Open-ended wisdom measures tend to be more difficult than self-report scales, with relatively few people scoring above the scale midpoint. In other words, non-cognitive wisdom measures differ from most cognitive wisdom measures in response format (Likert-type scales vs. open-ended written or spoken responses), specificity (general self-descriptions vs. responses to specific problems), and “difficulty” (high percentage vs. low percentage of high scores). All these method factors may influence the relationship between wisdom and other variables and would suggest stronger relationships of well-being with non-cognitive wisdom measures (self-report scales) than with cognitive wisdom measures (open-ended measures) even if the wisdom models underlying both types of measures were the same.
This paper investigates the role of both content and method variance by analyzing the relationships between four measures of wisdom—two open-ended measures and two self-report measures (one of each with more cognitive content, the other with more non-cognitive content)—and three measures representing different facets of the well-being complex. We expected to find stronger relationships between wisdom and well-being for non-cognitive compared to cognitive measures (and subdimensions of measures) and for self-report measures compared to open-ended measures of wisdom. In addition, however, we believe that correlations may not be the most conceptually adequate way to analyze the relationship between wisdom and well-being, as we discuss next.
The Assumption of Linear Relationships Between Wisdom and Well-Being
To date, all reported evidence on the relationship between wisdom and variables of the well-being complex has been correlational. However, correlations test for a linear relationship between two variables, which may not be the best representation of the theoretical relationship between wisdom and well-being. Most wisdom researchers would probably agree that there are far more people high in well-being than people high in wisdom. As Bauer et al. (2019) put it, “The mere presence of wellbeing—even eudaimonic well-being—is not grounds for the assessment of wisdom” (p. 93). For example, Staudinger and Kunzmann (2005) distinguished between two developmental pathways. People on the “adjustment path” aim to live a happy, satisfied life without asking too many in-depth questions about its meaning or purpose. People on the “growth path” are driven by a deep desire to understand and learn, which leads them to look deeply into the meaning of sad or scary experiences and to critically question themselves. Highly wise individuals, according to Staudinger and Kunzmann, are high in both adjustment and growth. Weststrate and Glück (2017a) looked at a similar distinction in the ways study participants reflected about difficult life events. Redemptive reflection involved finding a positive ending to the story and was correlated with well-being, whereas exploratory reflection involved gaining insights from the experience and was correlated with wisdom (see also Bauer et al., 2019; King et al., 2000; Pals, 2006).
In other words, there are easier paths to happiness and well-being than in-depth reflection and growth. It may be a lot easier to think about challenging events in ways that maintain or reinforce one’s self-esteem, without digging too deep into the scary or sad implications of an experience. These ideas suggest that even if wisdom involves a high level of happiness, there should be far more happy people than wise people. At the same time, it seems somewhat unlikely that very wise individuals would be very unhappy. Wisdom has been related to variables like gratitude (König & Glück, 2014) and forgiveness (Taylor et al., 2011); also, the idea that wise individuals are deeply at peace with themselves and the world is part of folk conceptions of wisdom (overview in Weststrate et al., 2019). In a theoretical chapter, Weststrate and Glück (2017b) attempted to reconcile the different perspectives and inconsistent findings by arguing that the developmental pathway to wisdom requires confrontation with negative experiences and feelings, but having reached a high level of wisdom involves being at peace with oneself, one’s life, and the world. Specifically, they argued that there are three reasons why wise individuals should be high in well-being: (1) wise individuals have learned from experience to handle difficult life situations well; (2) wise individuals appreciate even small positive moments because they are acutely aware of the less pleasant sides of life; and (3) wise individuals know themselves and what they need to live a good life, and they design their lives in ways that fulfill those needs. In addition, even if highly wise individuals are more likely to look into the difficult and negative sides of life than other people—for example, through occupational choices and volunteering activities, through a willingness to reflect on their own weaknesses and mistakes, or through increased awareness of the uncertainty and finitude of life—these more fleeting psychological states might not manifest themselves in typical well-being measures, which assess people’s summative, overall evaluations of their life and personal values and traits.
In sum, these considerations suggest that the assumption of linearity underlying correlational analyses may not be a good representation of how wisdom and variables of the well-being complex are related. If highly wise individuals are, indeed, high in well-being, but there are far more people high in well-being than in wisdom, then the relationship between the two variables should be triangular rather than linear, as shown in Fig. 1, Panel (A). People high in wisdom should be high in well-being; people low in wisdom may also be high in well-being or low in well-being or anywhere in between. In fact, as the results of the current study will show, even if the correlation between two variables is small or zero there can still be a triangular relationship between the two variables.
This paper analyzes linear as well as triangular relationships between wisdom and well-being. Fortunately for us, Jan Dul (2016) recently developed Necessary Condition Analysis (NCA), a method for analyzing triangular relationships where one variable is a necessary but not sufficient condition for another variableFootnote 1. If, for example, intelligence were necessary but not sufficient for wisdom, all wise individuals would be relatively intelligent, but not all intelligent individuals would be wise. Panel (B) in Fig. 1 illustrates this type of relationship. Dul (2016, 2020) suggested to use the relative size of the empty area in the top left of the scatterplot as the effect size for a necessary-condition relationship. The relationship between wisdom and well-being cannot easily be described in terms of necessary conditions from a theoretical perspective, but technically, it is of the same nature. If all highly wise individuals are high in well-being, but not all people high in well-being are highly wise, then high well-being is technically a necessary but not sufficient condition for high wisdom. Therefore, we used the computational methods developed by Dul (2016) for NCA to estimate effect sizes for a triangular relationship between wisdom and well-being. As our theoretical considerations would suggest that wisdom is more likely to lead to well-being than vice versa, the scatterplots we show in Fig. 2 display wisdom on the x axis and well-being on the y axis. For the statistical analyses, however, we flipped the scatterplots so that we could use Dul’s (2020) R routines to estimate the relative size of the empty area on the bottom right side of plots like Panel (A) in Fig. 1.
We believe that analyzing triangular relationships between wisdom and well-being may be particularly interesting with respect to open-ended measures of wisdom. As mentioned earlier, measures like the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm tend to be relatively “difficult,” with many participants scoring low and few participants scoring relatively high, whereas in well-being measures, the large majority of participants tend to score above the scale midpoint. Therefore, even if high wisdom involves high well-being, there still has to be a large number of participants high in well-being and low in wisdom, which might cause a low or zero correlation. If that were the case, it would suggest that even the cognitive conceptions of wisdom that are typically assessed using open-ended measures capture more than “just” wise thinking—as Glück and Weststrate (in press) suggested, wise thinking might be reflective of a broader attitude towards life that involves non-cognitive as well as cognitive components.
This paper analyzes the relationships between four different measures of wisdom and three different measures of the well-being complex. As explained above, we will present scatterplots as well as correlations and effect sizes for triangular relationships. Our first prediction was that relationships would be triangular rather than linear at least for open-ended measures of wisdom (because few people score high in these measures, but many score high in well-being measures), but possibly for all measures of wisdom (because there are many ways to happiness and, therefore, more highly happy people than highly wise people).
Second, we expected to find stronger relationships with well-being for non-cognitive measures than for cognitive measures (and subdimensions) of wisdom, because non-cognitive measures are conceptually closer to well-being as they involve aspects of personality, values, and affect. Some non-cognitive wisdom measures, such as the ASTI, explicitly include aspects of well-being such as self-acceptance and peace of mind (Koller et al., 2017). We also expected to find closer relationships with well-being for self-report measures than for open-ended measures of wisdom due to shared method variance. For distinguishing between these two predictions, results for the non-cognitive subcomponents of the open-ended measures (i.e., the openness, empathy, and emotion regulation subcomponents of the MORE Life Experience Interview) and cognitive subcomponents of the self-report measures (the cognitive and reflective dimension of the 3DWS) will be particularly interesting.
Third, we expected to find some differences between the well-being measures in their relationships with wisdom. As discussed earlier, we expected wisdom to be most closely related to psychological well-being (Ryff & Keyes, 1995), a eudaimonic conception of well-being that includes six facets of living a good and meaningful life. We also expected a relatively strong relationship between wisdom and general life satisfaction (Pavot et al., 1998), an overall evaluation of participants’ past, current, and future life. Assuming that highly wise individuals indeed know how to live well, we would expect them to generally have a positive, unembittered view of their life (Glück, 2011). We expected the weakest relationship for wisdom with our adapted version of the “life phase ladder,” a measure that asked participants to compare their current life phase to the best and worse phases of their life (Cantril, 1965). We did not expect highly wise individuals to judge their current life phase as the best more frequently than less wise individuals, because wiser individuals might be more willing to aim for objectivity in evaluating their current life situation. Considering one’s current life phase as the best may be a form of self-deception or positivity bias to which highly wise individuals might be less susceptible than other people.