You might have noticed, if you are a student of positive psychology, that I’m writing a series on the 24 Character Strengths identified by Martin Seligman and the late Chris Peterson, two of the founders of positive psychology. (You can find the earlier ones by clicking the “Articles Index” at the top of this page and then scrolling down to “Strengths, Individual.”)
This week, I set out to give you some insight into the power of perspective, or wisdom. It turned out to be a bit of a daunting project.
I started by looking at the description of the strength that accompanies the VIA Character Strength Survey itself.
In its typical fortune-cookie fashion, it says: “Perspective (Wisdom): Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.”
The more I thought about that, the more questions I had. What kind of viewpoint would cause people to think of you as wise and to seek your counsel? What is it about your way of looking at things that “makes sense”? And what does “making sense” mean, anyway? That it’s logical? Certainly wisdom is more than that.
A Definition of Wisdom
Happily, after a bit of digging, I came across a definition of wisdom that “made sense” to me. It rang true. And as I would later discover, the ability to perceive truth is one of the qualities of wisdom.
Its author is Dr. Caroline Bassett, founder of The Wisdom Institute:
“Wisdom,” she says, “is having sufficient awareness in various situations and contexts to act in ways that enhance our common humanity.”
Dr. Bassett has made a life-study of wisdom. And one of the most engaging aspects of her discussion about it is that she brings it down to earth. Despite the loftiness of the word, she helps her reader understand that wisdom can be homey, practical, and within the reach of us all.
Four Kinds of Wisdom
In an article about the wisdom she discovered in some elderly people whom she interviewed, Dr. Bassett outlines four different kinds, or levels, of wisdom.
“There is a difference in kinds of wisdom,” she says. “In my research on wisdom, I have found four different kinds or levels of it, the difference arising with the complexity and/or the scope of the situation.”
- She describes the first kind of wisdom as “Prudence.” This is the kind of small-scale, personal wisdom that we think of as caution, an awareness of the dangers or threats involved in situation. It’s prudent, for example, not to take your credit card with you to the mall if you’re trying to contain your spending.
- The second kind of wisdom, which Dr. Bassett calls “Ever After, is experience-based, and is about predicting the consequences of our actions. When you have to make a decision, your past experience helps you to figure out how each choice is it is likely to play out in the long run.
- The third type of wisdom, “A Good Thing Now and in the Future,” is broader and more complex. It involves identifying an idea that’s good right now and will also have a positive impact in the future. Literacy for all, says Dr. Bassett, is one example of this kind of wisdom.
- The final one is the most complex and wide ranging of the four. And here we run into the concept of perspective. It means seeing both the whole and the parts, seeing not only the consequences, but the patterns. Dr. Bassett calls it “Standing on the Mountain.” It considers the long-range impact of our actions on all who may be affected by them.
How to Develop a Wise Perspective
At her website, The Wisdom Institute, Dr. Bassett shares her model of wisdom and, in describing the four aspects that all wisdom contains, offers the questions we can ask ourselves to develop our own wise perspective of live.
- On a cognitive level, we can ask: What’s really going on? What’s true? What’s important? And what’s right? This is where we’re striving to be objective, and seek to understand patterns and relationships.
- On the affective, or feeling level, we’re striving to be open, non-judgmental and generous of spirit. Here we ask: Whose point of view am I taking? How does someone else understand reality? How can I relate to them?
- On the action level, were seeking involvement and making a commitment to action for the common good. The questions we can ask are: What guides my actions? To what ends are my actions direct?
- And, finally, on the reflective level, we’re seeking integrity and the ability to see beyond ourselves and to recognize our interdependence with others. Here we ask: What are my values? How do I live them? Who or what is the “I” that I think I am? What am I part of?
The Wisdom Institute is a genuine treasure, and I heartily recommend that you explore it and enjoy all that it offers.
If you’re intrigued and want to delve more deeply into the topic of wisdom as a means of broadening your perspective, you won’t want to miss The Wisdom Page.
It’s the richest source of information that I’ve been able to find on the web. It contains a self-study course, wisdom tools, books, reviews, research, links to wisdom-related blogs, and more.
It strongly promotes meditation, secular or otherwise, as a means of calming your mind to find wisdom.
If you have nine minutes, this video will give you an introduction to the site by its late founder, Copthorne “Cop” Macdonald, and explain why meditation is key:
Having a wise perspective of life, in essence, means being thoughtful and considering what is good for ourselves and others, both now and in the long run.
According to the Wisdom Page, it’s associated with over 48 positive human characteristics, among them: compassion, a positive attitude, empathy, curiosity, a willingness to risk, truthfulness, and generosity.
In Dr. Bassett’s words, “wisdom is about what matters and what we do about it. It’s a real-life process that makes the most of human flourishing.” It’s the perspective that makes life impactful and worthwhile.
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