EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom and Meaning with Jeffrey Dean Webster

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The EBW Dispatches Series reports the latest developments from the frontline of wisdom research. Key findings are highlighted and illuminated – with a little help from the researchers themselves. The relevant papers can be found at the end of the dispatch.


EBW Dispatches - Wisdom & Meaning (1)


Wisdom and Meaning with Jeffrey Dean Webster

Does searching for meaning in life actually make us happier or even wiser? Well it’s not quite as straightforward as you might expect, according to some recent research to emerge from a team in Vancouver, Canada. For a start, seeking meaning and finding it are not the same thing. And even more surprisingly, their research suggests that how we file away our experiences might determine whether we are destined for happiness or for wisdom. 


Jeffrey Dean Webster, PhD is a Professor of Psychology at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada. He is a founding member of the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review and a member of the Gerontological Society of America. He is also responsible for the development of the widely used SAWS (Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale). In May 2017, Webster and his colleagues published a paper called Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (2017).

Let’s take a closer look at the entangled world of wisdom, meaning and growth.


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In the paper Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (2017), Webster and his colleagues Nic Weststrate, Michel Ferrari, Melanie Munroe and Thomas Pierce detail their two new studies which investigate the mutual development of wisdom and meaning in young adults.

Both studies measured wisdom using Webster’s own Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale, which you can read more about here or in graphic form here.


Why ‘Emerging Adulthood?’


Why the particular focus on ’emerging adulthood?’ As the authors state in the paper, this period is of keen interest to wisdom researchers: ‘Major life transitions, which are predominant in emerging adulthood (e.g. changing schools, moving to different locations, changing their social network, parental divorce), frequently entail the questioning of prior values and beliefs and are often experienced as stressful. Such transitions, particularly in the area of work and love, but also in general, may instigate processes of meaning-making and the development of wisdom.’


Such transitions, particularly in the area of work and love, but also in general, may instigate processes of meaning-making and the development of wisdom.


Part One – Wisdom on the path to meaning


In the first study they were investigating the relationship between wisdom and the search for and presence of meaning in life. The study involved 298 young adults between the ages of 18 & 29 completing self-report questionnaires. The Search for and presence of meaning were assessed using Michael F. Steger’s Meaning in Life Questionnaire.

Study highlights suggest:

‘Search for Meaning’ is mildly associated with ‘Wisdom.’ 

‘Presence of Meaning’ is moderately associated with ‘Wisdom.’

This would suggest that wisdom is more strongly correlated with finding meaning than seeking meaning. It’s of course important at this point to state that these correlations don’t tell us if wisdom leads to meaning or if it’s meaning that leads to wisdom.

In fact, as Webster explained to evidencebasedwisdom, ‘Wisdom is more likely to involve a progressive, mutually interdependent process in which wisdom and meaning-making reciprocally reinforce one another over time. Wise persons are more likely to search for and eventually find meaning in life, and this in-depth exploration and evaluation likely strengthens many of the components of wisdom, which in turn, stimulates and enables subsequent wisdom development.’


Wisdom is more likely to involve a progressive, mutually interdependent process in which wisdom and meaning-making reciprocally reinforce one another over time. Wise persons are more likely to search for and eventually find meaning in life, and this in-depth exploration and evaluation likely strengthens many of the components of wisdom, which in turn, stimulates and enables subsequent wisdom development.


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Part Two – How the wise process stressful events


In the second study, the researchers were interested in the relationship between wisdom and ‘processing styles’, namely ‘Exploratory Processing’ and ‘Redemptive Processing.’ Essentially, they wanted to know the answer to the question: Which of these processing styles do wise people tend to use when responding to stressful events in their own lives?

271 young adults between the ages of 17 and 29 provided written accounts of stressful life events, which were then scored by raters for their ‘Exploratory’ or ‘Redemptive’ processing styles. The coding schemes used, whilst based on similar approaches employed in related work, were further developed specifically for this study to capture maximal variation across the participants.

But first, what exactly is the difference between ‘Exploratory processing’ and ‘Redemptive processing?’ As the authors describe in the paper:

‘Exploratory processing refers to the extent to which the narrator reflected upon, explored and constructed deeper meaning from the stressful life event…

Redemptive processing concerned the extent to which the reporter had positively reframed the emotional meaning of the event over the long-term.’

So, how do high-scoring wisdom performers process stressful events? Do they focus on deriving lessons and insights, or do they instead focus on reframing the negative event in a more positive light so that they can feel better about the event?

Study highlights suggest:

‘Wisdom’ is moderately associated with ‘Exploratory processing.’ This means the higher the wisdom score, the higher the score for ‘Exploratory processing’ when recounting a negative life event.

‘Wisdom’ is not associated with ‘Redemptive processing.’ This means people’s wisdom score gave no indication of their ‘Redemptive processing’ score when recounting a negative life event.

Whilst this would seem to suggest that Exploratory processing is clearly a more reliable path to wisdom, Webster was keen to point out that both processing styles have their part to play: ‘It is important to reiterate that redemptive processing may play a role in wisdom as well., as it may be ‘wise’ to seek closure and emotional satisfaction (Redemption) as a coping strategy. Dealing with stressful life events may require, at least initially, a means to bracket the emotional turmoil associated with these types of disruptive events. Redemptive processing can allow for this type of ‘happy ending.’ Subsequently, persons might revisit their autobiographical memories associated with the stressor and be able to process the information in a more elaborate, growth-oriented manner. We need longitudinal studies to investigate how redemptive and exploratory styles interact over time.’


It is important to reiterate that redemptive processing may play a role in wisdom as well., as it may be ‘wise’ to seek closure and emotional satisfaction (Redemption) as a coping strategy. Dealing with stressful life events may require, at least initially, a means to bracket the emotional turmoil associated with these types of disruptive events. Redemptive processing can allow for this type of ‘happy ending.’ Subsequently, persons might revisit their autobiographical memories associated with the stressor and be able to process the information in a more elaborate, growth-oriented manner.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch can be found here:

Wisdom and Meaning in Emerging Adulthood (Webster, Weststrate, Ferrari, Munroe, Pierce, 2017)


Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about the work:

Wisdom Research Forum: “The HERO(E) Model of Wisdom” by Jeffrey WEbster, PhD Video of Jeffrey Dean Websters’s talk at Chicago University’s Wisdom Research Forum 2015 discussing the HERO(E) model of wisdom.

Wisdom and Mental Health Across the Lifespan (Webster, Westerhof & Bohlmeijer, 2012) – In this paper, Jeffrey Dean Webster and colleagues investigate the relationship between age and various components of wisdom, suggesting an advantage in wisdom for middle-aged adults.

Paths From Trauma to Intrapersonal Strength: Worldview, Posttraumatic Growth, and Wisdom (Webster & Deng, 2015) – In this paper, Webster and Deng investigate the relationship between changes in worldview, wisdom and posttraumatic growth.

The Many Faces of Wisdom: An Investigation of Cultural-Historical Wisdom Exemplars Reveals Practical, Philosophical, and Benevolent Prototypes – Weststrate, N. M., Ferrari, M., & Ardelt, M. (2016) – In this paper, Ferrari, Weststrate and Ardelt demonstrate that, when asked to nominate someone they consider to be wise, people tended to nominate ‘practical’ people more than people who had especially profound insight or were particularly compassionate people.

Meaning In Life Questionnaire (Steger at al, 2006) – Explore the MLQ further by visiting Michael F. Steger’s Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life, and you can watch his TED talk ‘What Makes Life Meaningful’ here.

EBW Animation Series: Measuring Wisdom – This animation looks at how scientists wrangle with the challenges inherent in ‘scoring’ for wisdom and features Webster’s Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale.


If you have any thoughts about the dispatch, please get in touch.

You can contact me at charles@evidencebasedwisdom.com, via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.

Charles

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