Professor of Psychology Jeffrey Dean Webster
On Wisdom, Humour and Critical Life Experiences
Jeffrey Dean Webster, PhD is an instructor of Psychology at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada. He is a founding member of both the Society for Research in Human Development and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. He is also responsible for the development of the widely used SAWS (Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale). He spoke with evidencebasedwisdom about how he developed the SAWS and the associated HERO(E) model of wisdom. He also talked about the overlooked role of humour in wisdom, the types of experiences that do and don’t nurture wisdom in ageing and discussed the possible role a balanced time perspective might play in the development of wisdom.
How did you first become interested in the study of wisdom?
In graduate school I was looking for an area of interest which reflected more positive aspects of aging – so abilities, traits, or experiences which counteracted the litany of limitations and deteriorations typically investigated at the time. One area was reminiscence and life review, which ostensibly favoured older adults. I eventually developed the Reminiscence Functions Scale (Webster, 1993), which describes eight functions of autobiographical memory. The second positive aspect of aging was the experimental research following the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm by Baltes and colleagues. The positive stereotype of “older and wiser” promised a more salubrious research focus rather than an emphasis on dementia, incontinence, and myriad other aging “declines”.
Can you share with us the definition of wisdom that you find the most helpful in your research? How did you arrive at this definition?
After an extensive review of the literature, I defined wisdom as the “competence in, intention to, and application of, critical life events to facilitate the optimal development of self and others”. These key components are described in some detail in an earlier article (Webster, 2010). I think the definition has two advantages: (1) it represents, to my mind, a good compromise between comprehensiveness and parsimony, and (2) the definition captures (a) some core historical aspects (e.g., living a well-examined, virtuous life) and (b) cultural properties seen as important in both ancient and current conceptualizations. For instance, Jeste and Vahia (2008) noted that competence, action, and service to others were components of wisdom emphasized in the ancient Hindu conception of wisdom expressed in the Bhagavad Gita.
After an extensive review of the literature, I defined wisdom as the “competence in, intention to, and application of, critical life events to facilitate the optimal development of self and others”
Can you briefly outline the HERO(E) model of wisdom and the associated Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale?
The HEROE model of wisdom (see Webster, 2014 for a more extensive discussion) argues that wisdom is a multifaceted construct in which five core features dynamically develop and become increasingly synthesized over time. Like others (e.g., Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2016), I see personal wisdom as an emergent property, more than simply the sum of its parts. Personal wisdom is partially operationalized in the SAWS (click here to read more about the Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale), a 40-item questionnaire reflecting five dimensions of wisdom: humour, emotional regulation, reminiscence/reflectiveness, openness to experience, and critical life experiences. Each dimension of wisdom is indexed by 8 items. Again, these components are consistent with many contemporary models of wisdom, as well as reflecting concepts from antiquity and cultural diversity. Again from the Bhagavad Gita, Jeste and Vahia (2008) identified emotional regulation and humour (as manifest in humility) as core components.
H – HUMOUR:
Humour has been recognized as an important trait in adaptive health (Wheeler, 2013), mature coping styles (Vaillant, 2000), and as a mental fitness indicator (Howrigan & MacDonald, 2008), among many other positive features. Surprisingly, however, the importance of humour as an aspect of wisdom has been given little empirical attention. Beerman and Ruch (2009) found that in laypersons’ conceptions, humor and wisdom were positively related. Moreover, Gluck et al. (2013) concluded that the inclusion of humour as part of the SAWS was an important addition in measuring wisdom. The type of humour assessed by the SAWS includes not taking oneself too seriously, developing an ironic stance towards life (e.g., Randall, 2011), using humour to put others at ease, and as a way to cope with difficult life stressors. It is antithetical to sarcasm, malicious teasing, and other forms of caustic humour. As such, humour as conceptualized here has much in common with humility, a trait often seen to be important historically and cross-culturally. Consistent with the above, I have some unpublished data in which the humour factor of the SAWS is positively correlated with both affiliative and self-enhancing humour styles which I take as evidence that the type of humour seen in the SAWS is both prosocial and beneficial to one’s own sense of well-being.
The type of humour assessed by the SAWS includes not taking oneself too seriously, developing an ironic stance towards life, using humour to put others at ease, and as a way to cope with difficult life stressors. It is antithetical to sarcasm, malicious teasing, and other forms of caustic humour.
E – EMOTIONAL REGULATION:
Emotional regulation is similar to emotional intelligence (e.g., Salovey & Grewal, 2005) in that wise persons are able to non-defensively experience a wide array of complex emotions without a sense of being overwhelmed. Emotional regulation includes the ability to identify and adaptively use myriad emotional states including mixed emotions (e.g., poignancy). In its extreme absence, emotional regulation would result in a condition similar to alexithymia. Wise persons do not purposely seek out negative emotional states, but neither do they run from them; rather, both positive and negative emotions are recognized as part of the natural order of daily living, each of which provides valuable information about a person’s current context. Wise persons are not prone to chronic self-defeating anxieties and fears, as evidenced by the negative correlation between the SAWS and the personality trait of neuroticism (e.g., Webster, Westerhof, & Bohlmeijer, 2014).
Wise persons do not purposely seek out negative emotional states, but neither do they run from them; rather, both positive and negative emotions are recognized as part of the natural order of daily living, each of which provides valuable information about a person’s current context.
R – REMINISCENCE/REFLECTION:
Reminiscence/reflectiveness echoes classical admonitions to “know thyself”, and is considered to be a key social-cognitive process in wisdom development (Staudinger, 2001). Reflecting on past and current behaviours is an important source of understanding personal goals, motivations, strengths and limitations. Through a non-defensive evaluation of one’s contributions to specific outcomes, a person can identify and take responsibility for actions. The resulting insight is stored in a self-schema, which is subsequently enriched as additional life experiences accrue over time. This type of reminiscence is very similar to identity consolidation and problem-solving, 2 of the 8 types of reminiscence functions described by Webster (1993). However, wise persons employ all types of reminiscence functions if appropriate. For instance, consistent with the definition of wisdom offered earlier, wise persons can share their wisdom to promote optimal development in others via the teach/inform reminiscence function.
The resulting insight is stored in a self-schema, which is subsequently enriched as additional life experiences accrue over time.
O – OPENNESS TO EXPERIENCE:
One of the hallmark traits of wisdom is openness to experience. This is often manifested in a tolerance for, although not necessarily an acceptance of, other belief systems, values, and customs. Wise persons have a clearly articulated sense of identity (e.g., Webster, 2013) and a strong philosophical and moral base (Kekes, 1995; Tiberius, 2008) which serves to guide thought and behaviour. However, these cognitive-emotional foundations are understood to be only one of many possible alternative positions. Wise persons recognize, indeed celebrate, the diversity in human nature and take into consideration the context when offering advice or guidance to others (e.g., Staudinger, 2013). A sense of openness encourages wise persons to seek out novel experiences, pursue lifelong learning, and engage in problem-finding as well as problem-solving (e.g. Arlin, 1990). Exploring both one’s inner and outer worlds is a critical element of wisdom.
A sense of openness encourages wise persons to seek out novel experiences, pursue lifelong learning, and engage in problem-finding as well as problem-solving.
(E) CRITICAL LIFE EXPERIENCES:
Finally, it is not all experiences which contribute equally, if at all, to the development of wisdom. In fact, the majority of daily decisions concerning the minutiae of everyday life (e.g. what to have for breakfast, which tie to wear to work, when to water the lawn) have nothing to do with wisdom. Rather, wisdom is evoked by ill-defined problems which may have no obviously correct answer but nevertheless entail serious consequences for a person’s well-being (Webster & Deng, 2015). Serious life decisions often involve conflicting alternatives, moral dilemmas, and psychosocial distress, all of which are exacerbated by outcomes which are frequently unknown. Child custody arrangements with a recovering alcoholic ex-spouse, end of life nursing care for a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s, and immigrating to a foreign country to pursue a better life, are all examples of the types of decisions which require wise deliberations and actions.
Wisdom is evoked by ill-defined problems which may have no obviously correct answer but nevertheless entail serious consequences for a person’s well-being
You have stressed in your work that the EMOTIONAL REGULATION component of the model refers to the importance of exposure to the full range of human emotion – that wise people must be open to both positive and negative emotional states. With this in mind, what do you see as the relationship between wisdom and happiness?
Excellent question. It depends in part on how you define happiness. Currently, researchers distinguish between hedonistic and eudaimonic types of happiness. The former concerns experiencing primarily positive emotions and is indexed by such measures as life satisfaction; the latter reflects a sense of fulfillment derived from living a meaningful life, and is indexed by such things as having a sense of purpose and espousing particular values. The two types may reflect developmental pathways of adjustment and growth, respectively. From my perspective, a wise person should manifest both types of happiness but perhaps with a stronger emphasis on eudaimonia. Indeed, we (Webster, Westerhof, & Bohlmeijer, 2014) found this exact pattern in a large, lifespan sample of Dutch participants. Wise persons certainly enjoy and benefit from shortterm pleasures in life, but they realize these are often fleeting. Eudaimonic pursuits perhaps entail longterm goals which allow for deeper and longer lasting sense of purpose and meaning.
HUMOUR is one of the five key components of your model of wisdom. Other models have overlooked this aspect of wisdom, but humour, in the sense of recognition of life’s ironies, seems critical for wisdom. Do you think that humour, however, can be used to avoid the negative emotions mentioned above?
I think that using humour or any other characteristic to avoid dealing with negative emotions (at least as a long-term strategy) is not wise. Negative emotions are telling us something important about ourselves, the context, or some interaction of the two. A wiser way of using humour is to take the edge off negative emotions so that we can explore them for the potential insights they might provide without becoming overwhelmed or incapacitated in the process. Take shame or embarrassment as an example. The negative affective arousal of shame is telling us we’ve transgressed some moral guideline and the subjective unpleasantness of this state motivates us to do better in the future. If we become overwhelmed by shame, however, we may not be able or willing to explore more adaptive ways of dealing with it. Or consider unwarranted anger. Perhaps you’ve taken a comment by a boss or colleague the wrong way and blown things out of proportion. By taking an ironic stance on the event, not taking yourself too seriously, and trying to see a humorous element in the situation, you provide distance and perspective on an originally upsetting event. This allows us to regulate and learn from emotionally challenging experiences without denial, excessive avoidance, or inappropriate behaviour.
By taking an ironic stance on the event, not taking yourself too seriously, and trying to see a humorous element in the situation, you provide distance and perspective on an originally upsetting event. This allows us to regulate and learn from emotionally challenging experiences without denial, excessive avoidance, or inappropriate behaviour.
Sticking with HUMOUR for the moment, the ‘Incongruity Theory of Humour’ suggests that we find something funny when we identify something as out of place, and then we delight in the shift in perspective that is required to make sense of it (A man walks into a bar. Ouch!). Multiple-perspective taking is central to many models of wisdom. Is it possible that a facility for perspective shifting may link wisdom and humour?
That is a really interesting suggestion. I think this deserves further exploration. In an earlier paper, SAWS scores positively predicted attributional complexity, a measure assessing aspects of social perspective taking, so this provides some very tentative evidence consistent with your question. More directly assessing the association of perspective-taking, humour, and wisdom seems like an intriguing project to pursue.
The CRITICAL LIFE EXPERIENCES component of your model refers primarily to the role that difficult, critical life experiences can play in the development of wisdom. Can wisdom be gained from more everyday trials and tribulations or can real gains only be made from significantly disruptive experiences?
There are probably various paths to wisdom and some of these paths may involve less intensely negative experiences. It is not that persons must experience overwhelming trauma in order to develop wisdom. Nevertheless, a life of ease, protection, and stress-free living is unlikely to produce a deep level of wisdom. Negative events challenge us to think about the precursors and consequences of such personal episodes and to evaluate myriad factors which may have contributed to its occurrence and long-term consequences. If I get a compliment at work, I’m temporarily buoyed up as I experience this daily uplift. I do not, however, spend extensive lengths of time pondering why the person complimented me and how it fits into the overall scheme of my life. In contrast, if I’m fired, then copious cognitive-emotional resources are devoted to understanding this event. I process, evaluate, and synthesize multiple informational sources and recursively examine personal and contextual factors which help me make sense of this event. In so doing, (in combination with openness and humour) I might learn something important, perhaps novel, about myself, including strengths and limitations. Such insights then contribute to increased wisdom and the ability to deal more constructively with future disruptive events.
A life of ease, protection, and stress-free living is unlikely to produce a deep level of wisdom. Negative events challenge us to think about the precursors and consequences of such personal episodes and to evaluate myriad factors which may have contributed to its occurrence and long-term consequences.
What are the main challenges associated with studying the concept of wisdom and how can these challenges be navigated?
Of course, there are several challenges in the study of wisdom! As noted by others, wisdom is a culturally and historically loaded concept and so one of the major challenges, at least for empirical psychology, involves reaching some consensus on defining what Sternberg described as an “elusive” concept. I offered my definition earlier, but as expected, there are many other definitions as well. Despite this, a recent project garnering insight from ostensible wisdom experts (Jeste, Ardelt, Blazer, Kraemer, Vaillant, & Meeks, 2010) concluded that “it is noteworthy that we found a remarkable consensus among the expert participants on wisdom being a distinct entity and a number of its characteristic qualities.” Many of those qualities are consistent with, if not the same as, those proposed in the H.E.R.O.(E). model.
What simple actions does your research suggest individuals can take to support the development of wisdom?
Probably cultivating, then reflecting upon, diverse experiences. In order for wisdom to develop it is important to at least occasionally push our comfort levels and open ourselves up to experiences which challenge our personal status quo. We then need to follow these experiences up with some kind of structured or directed, reflection. For instance, as is well known, volunteering in countries quite distinct from one’s own bring opportunities to question personal values and goals as well as develop new skills. If volunteers then wrote daily journals in which they focused on lessons learned about the self or others, this insight could serve as a building block for higher levels of wisdom. This is obviously not a very profound, or novel, suggestion but it strikes me as a testable hypothesis. For instance, active volunteers and those on waiting lists for similar work experiences could both be randomly assigned to either a daily structured diary or non-writing group. Participants in all four groups could be measured for wisdom using some existing scales to test for the influence of experience and writing as separate predictors of wisdom. From the H.E.R.O.(E). model perspective, a significant interaction effect in which the experience/diary group condition scored highest would support the contention that both experience AND reflection are necessary to produce higher levels of wisdom.
In order for wisdom to develop it is important to at least occasionally push our comfort levels and open ourselves up to experiences which challenge our personal status quo. We then need to follow these experiences up with some kind of structured or directed, reflection.
I understand that you’re working on a paper relating time perspective, wisdom and life narratives. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Some recent work (Webster, Bohlmeijer, & Westerhof, 2014) has investigated the relationship between wisdom and temporal orientation, specifically a balanced time perspective. Briefly, we predicted that wise persons have the cognitive and motivational resources to flexibly use both retrospection and prospection in ways which enhance well-being and other positive outcomes. In other words, wiser individuals can draw upon what some have called biographical capital (i.e., reminisce) for many useful functions, such as mood enhancement, problem-solving, identity consolidation, and social interactions. Wiser people, we conjectured, don’t just “live in the past” however; they also anticipate their future in positive ways as well. Imagining future successes and planning goal-directed activities, for instance, are ways in which we motivate ourselves and remain optimistic. We found that persons who scored higher on both the positive past and positive future subscales (i.e., they had a more “balanced” time perspective) were significantly higher on wisdom than persons emphasizing only a high past orientation or scored low on both temporal positions. Time perspective and wisdom interrelationships seem like interesting and fruitful areas for continuing investigation.
Wiser individuals can draw upon what some have called biographical capital (i.e. reminisce) for many useful functions, such as mood enhancement, problem-solving, identity consolidation, and social interactions. Wiser people, we conjectured, don’t just “live in the past” however; they also anticipate their future in positive ways as well.
Our current project is investigating the relationship between meaning-making and wisdom in emerging adults. We evaluated both the search for, and presence of, meaning and its relation to wisdom in a mixed methods approach. We used quantitative measures in our first study and found that wisdom (as measured by the SAWS) was positively associated with both the search for, and presence of, meaning, with the latter showing a stronger correlation. This suggests to us that wiser persons have not only established a sense of purpose and meaning in life which serves as a foundation for current life choices, but also implies that wiser persons, because of their growth orientation, continue to seek for new ways in which meaning can be pursued as life contexts change and new goals are identified and pursued. In study two, we found that wisdom predicted exploratory processing of highly stressful autobiographical narratives. Wiser persons mined their autobiographical reflections for insights concerning the stressful events rather than just gloss over them. The latter results are consistent with Webster (2013) and Gluck et al., (2013) suggesting that wiser persons tell wiser stories. Again, this is an intriguing and potentially productive avenue for future research.
This suggests to us that wiser persons have not only established a sense of purpose and meaning in life which serves as a foundation for current life choices, but also implies that wiser persons, because of their growth orientation, continue to seek for new ways in which meaning can be pursued as life contexts change and new goals are identified and pursued.
Why not have a look at the following papers and articles to read more about Jeffrey Dean Webster’s research?
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.
An Exploratory Analysis of a Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale (Webster, 2003) – In this paper, Jeffrey Dean Webster outlines research suggesting the reliability and validity of the SAWS measure.
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.
How to measure wisdom: content, reliability, and validity of five measures (Gluck et al., 2013) – This paper by Judith Gluck and colleagues compares the Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale with the other prominent wisdom scales currently used in the research community.
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.
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