How to be wiser during troubled times

Wisdom is much more than intelligence. Here's how to become a wiser you.
Multiple reflection of female face in broken mirror
There will always be setbacks in life, so resilience is a key ingredient in wisdom.Nina Sinitskaya / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

It’s been estimated an adult makes 35,000 conscious decisions every day — from the trivial to the essential. Will yours be wise?

It could mean the difference between barely surviving and truly thriving in life, even during troubled times.

Wisdom is associated with age, but it’s actually a personality trait made up of components such as empathy, compassion, open-mindedness, resilience, emotional regulation and self-reflection, said Dr. Dilip Jeste, co-author of the new book “Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good.”

Wise people learn from their mistakes, see life from many perspectives, and cultivate a sense of adventure and humor. They accept uncertainty and are open to new experiences.

“Wisdom is much more than intelligence,” Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences, and director of the Center for Healthy Aging at UC San Diego, told TODAY.

“Intelligence does not guarantee happiness or success. There are people who are very intelligent, but they're very unhappy… they may not be liked by others.”

While happiness is fleeting, wisdom is an internal contentedness that lasts, Jeste noted. Intelligence doesn’t increase with age, but wisdom does. Studies show people who score high on this trait, especially the compassion component, are not likely to be lonely.

You can find out your own wisdom score by taking an online assessment.

Since wisdom is a personality trait, 50% of it is inherited and the rest is up to a person’s behavior and environment, Jeste said.

“There is real evidence based on hard science that you can increase empathy, compassion, emotional regulation,” he noted. “Practical wisdom can be improved… I see that as decision-making in everyday life.”

Here are four ways to be wiser:

1. Cultivate compassion, including self-compassion

Helping others to help yourself and understanding another person’s plight is key, Jeste writes in his book.

There’s a unique clarity at the end of life, so when he and his colleagues asked 21 people who were dying of a terminal illness how they defined wisdom, all listed empathy, compassion, love, kindness, forgiveness and respect as major components.

Self-compassion — treating yourself with care and concern, and understanding you’re not perfect — is also important and different from narcissism, which is an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance, Jeste writes in his book.

To nurture compassion, both for others and yourself, a daily 10-minute loving kindness meditation can be a helpful exercise. Find a quiet time and space, and with your eyes closed, think about people you care deeply about and silently send wishes like, “May they be safe and happy.” Gradually extend the wishes to include yourself, your neighbors and others.

Keeping a gratitude journal to write about three good things that happened to you each day is another way to build empathy, the authors noted.

2. Practice emotional regulation

“Stop getting so angry, so stressed out, so anxious,” Jeste urged. It’s a matter of balance: “We live best in the broad middle of our emotional lives,” he writes in the book.

Jeste used road rage as an example of how three steps can help people avoid having emotions get out of control and keep perspective:

Reappraise the situation: Another driver cut you off and your initial feeling is he’s a jerk you have to get back at. But reconstruct what that person’s motivation may be: Perhaps he’s in a rush because he has a family emergency or is afraid of losing his job if he’s late.

Label what’s happening: Accept the fact that you’re furious and allow the feeling to fade. “It's OK to be angry, but let me move on now,” Jeste advised saying.

Distract yourself: Turn up the volume of the radio. Get your mind off the anger and turn your thoughts elsewhere.

3. Become more resilient

There will always be setbacks in life — no one is spared — but the key is to recover from trauma or adversity and keep going.

Resilience is how you not just survive stress, but how you grow from it,” Jeste said. “Some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder; some people develop post-traumatic growth. So they actually become better, more receiving, wiser after the stress.”

If facing a crisis, recall times in the past when you handled another stressful situation very well, he noted. Also think about all the other people who’ve been through the same or worse. Whatever the predicament, it’s not likely to be permanent and you will get out of it.

“Say, ‘I am capable of doing it and I will do it,’” Jeste advised telling yourself.

The support of others is a critical part of resilience so reach out to confidants you trust and share your concerns with them.

Stepping away from yourself is also helpful: Think about a problem in the third person — as if it were someone else’s — and then take your own best advice, Jeste writes.

4. Don’t take things so personally

Negative emotions stick to younger minds like Velcro, while older, more experienced minds are like Teflon, allowing the toxic thoughts to slide off, the book noted.

Be more on the Teflon side: Spend less time fretting and more time paying attention to the good stuff in life. Acknowledge mistakes and move on rather than blaming yourself and ruminating about what could have been.

One helpful exercise to get perspective is to write your own obituary. Think about how you’d like to be remembered and consider how you spend your days now: Does your life align with how you’d like it to turn out? If not, nudge it in the right direction. It’s the wise thing to do.