By Walter Sorochan Doctor of Health & Safety [HSD] Emeritus Professor San Diego State University

Posted August 25, 2018; Updated December 3, 2021. 

This article explores wisdom in a format that should be understandable by the general population. This article can be translated in 70 different languages.

Wisdom is complex and there is no agreed upon a standard definition of wisdom. Bangen: Review of wisdom literature  2013 There are two major perceptions about wisdom.  One is the medical approach that links wisdom to areas of the brain and then perceives features or traits, as Dr. Jeste and his researchers at University of California San Diego Medical School have attempted to do. Jeste: Emerging Science of Wisdom 2019  The other approach is to view wisdom in general terms of behavior in public life and how we life as this article attempts to do. Both approaches tend to use psycho-social descriptive features that are also abstract.

Wisdom has been defined as what one has learned over time. It is the common sense of living.


This article is intended for the general public. It is written so those lacking medical and educational background will be able to understand wisdom.

Wisdom is about philosophy of life, how we live and make decisions.

Article searches for the truth!

The quality of having varied experiences, knowledge, having good values, being rational and having good judgment usually as we get older; the quality of being wise. But this simplistic view of wisdom has been explored in greater detail by researchers at University of California San Diego [UCSD].

Dr. Dilip Jeste, Director, Stein Institute for Research on Aging, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences, UCSD, perceives wisdom as "a balanced combination of intelligence, kindness, knowledge of oneself, control over emotions, tolerance of different perspectives, and decisiveness. The key element is balance – balance between meeting one’s own needs and helping others, balance between being open to different options and acting decisively, balance between having flexible versus rigid values, balance between expressing versus inhibiting a display of one’s emotions. Wisdom is a trait that is on a continuum – like height and a score on an IQ test. We all have it but in different degrees."

Wisdom is useful to the oneself and also helpful to the rest of the society. ... It is somewhat subjective, using pyscho-social traits and thus can be interpreted differently." Robbins: Wisdom what is it? 2015 For example Jeste and associates in 2010  Jeste:Wisdom characteristics 2010 perceived that there is a partial overlap in the brain regions implicated in intelligence/reasoning and wisdom. Nonetheless, there are also several important characteristics in which wisdom differs from intelligence—for example, wisdom [but not intelligence] may include domains such as practical application of knowledge, use of knowledge for common social good, and integration of affect and knowledge.

Jeste points out that: "wisdom is linked to better overall health, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, and resilience. Wisdom likely increases with age, facilitating a possible evolutionary role of wise grandparents in promoting the fitness of the species. Despite the loss of their own fertility and physical health, older adults help enhance their children's well-being, health, longevity, and fertility-the "Grandma Hypothesis" of wisdom."  Article by Jeste: Science of Wisdom is no longer active.

So, what is real wisdom?

There is no uniform definition of wisdom!  Bangen: Review of wisdom literature  2013  

Jeste and his researchers at UCSD found that "wisdom has been perceived with minor differences in different periods of history, in different societies at a single point in history, and even in different communities within a single society."  Article by Jeste: Science of wisdom is no longer active. The wisdom of how to live has been passed on from generation to generation.

What is becoming clear is that wisdom evolves from how one lives. It is more than just one's experiences, what one knows and uses good judgment. It has to include values [morality] by which to live; that is values of right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice and as morality applies to society. In other words, wisdom is based on a whole philosophy of life. Just because one is old, has a university education or is a politician does not grant one the label of wisdom!

Why be concerned about wisdom?

It is a natural trait for everyone to think they are wise .... even when they are young. Although some base their decisions and judgments on sound information, many base their decisions on misinformation, lies and selfish desires. This is what is happening in United States today. Many, armed with misinformation, perceive to be wise when they not wise!

Well, if you know very little about wisdom, then you also know very little about life and living. For wisdom is made up of life and how one has lived. But learning from life experiences is not enough. Knowing how to interpret the information and how to use or direct the information is equally important. Wisdom also needs to reflect caring about others and serving the greater numbers of society other than just oneself or just a few.  Schenkam: defining wisdom 2018  

In trying to find out more about wisdom, Jeste linked medical perception of wisdom to brain activity. Article by Jeste: Science of wisdom is no longer active.   Jeste and his researchers at UCSD studied wisdom and found that both modern science and ancient philosophy point to six key qualities: a general knowledge of life and good judgment in social situations; control over your emotions; pro-social behaviors like empathy, compassion, altruism and a sense of fairness; insight into oneself and one’s actions perceiving “the ability to see what mistakes you’ve made"; value relativism or “accepting that we don’t know what the truth is sometimes”; and decisiveness.  LaFee: Wisdom at end of life 2018  Schenkam: defining wisdom 2018 The flaw in this research finding is that the researchers failed to account for those who were successful at different ages and those who were not and identify the values used by participants in the study. Wisdom needs to be guided by doing good, values and search for the truth.

Well, you, the reader, may have your own version of wisdom. And people's version of wisdom may still be lacking real insight into what wisdom is; for their exposure to varied experiences may be small, their education may be limited and their values distorted or lacking!

What is wisdom? Everyone seems to have some semblance of what wisdom is. But very few if any have taken the time to study the essentials of wisdom. One could say that wisdom is common sense, knowing right from wrong, and making good decisions. It is learning from life, being smart and wise! Everyone believes that one is smart and has wisdom. But this is not true in everyday life.

The real questions to ask about wisdom are:

  • Where does wisdom come from?
  • How does one get wisdom?
  • How much wisdom does one have at each age?
  • Is wisdom cumulative?
  • Can it be learned?

socrates  wisdom Wisdom comes from the experience and study of life. We need to look for guidance to the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who debated about life, values, character and morality. They gave us the roots of wisdom ... that is, some measure of what life is about; philosophy, life, morality and wisdom. They gave us the foundation of wisdom.


Morality comes from the Latin word, 'moralis', which means, customs, manners, or patterns of behavior that conform to the standards of the group; (Hurlock, 1973).


After researching the many ideas about wisdom, author Sorochan has simplified the make up of wisdom into three pillars of wisdom. Although the three pillars approach appears to be a simpler and a more common sense approach than the medical approach definition, we still need some characteristics or traits of what wisdom is made up of. Wisdom may be found in a book but it best comes from experiencing life.  Ardelt: Wisdom expert knowledge 2004   Since Wisdom is related to success and survival, we need to explore the psycho-social behavioral aspects of wisdom as found in daily living.


2 pillars


This author perceives three basic pillars that form practical wisdom:

Experiences: many varied learning experiences of living. The more varied and meaningful experiences, the higher the level for real potential wisdom.  Experiences are more than just playing sports, visiting Las Vegas, going to university, or visiting a foreign country. Experiences also include having crises in life, like giving birth to a baby, marriage failure, having an accident and surgery and surviving to become a better person.  Collectively many experiences are routine living while some may be peak, extraordinary and life changing. that creates the moment toward reaching one's full potential. A peak experience is not necessarily about what the activity is, but the ecstatic, blissful feeling that is being experienced during it. We need to mine difficult experiences for valuable lessons. But experiences by themselves need some education to interpret the experiences.

Fortunately, mother nature in her wisdom of creation, endowed our DNA to strive for perfection, potential for good and doing good. We often get a "gut" feeling that something is good or bad. So maybe our instincts may also be part of wisdom.

surviving homos

Early man learned to survive by banding together and form communities.  This required some intellect, imagination, skill, many tragic experiences and crises. The need for a 'social banding together' structure may be engrained in our genes and heredity although we have as yet not discovered all of these genes.

We learn from experiences throughout life; from childhood, adulthood and as seniors and this becomes general education. Children learn from their parents, from playing with each other, from teachers and later on from professors in higher education. We also learn from mass media, like reading newspapers, the internet, watching television, and chatting with others. However, a lot of such experiences may provide information that may be misinformation.


Experiences are really learning about life. A few of the many varied living experiences are symbolized in the images below:

educ1 child play exper1 soccer exp4 surgery exper4 family1 raising
Experience: learning from play Experience: playing sports Experience: health Problems Experience: raising a family
work2 road work exp2 Titicaca Lake educ3  hi school educ3 higher ed
Experience: work fixing road Experience: visiting foreign country Education-learning hi-school Education-higher learning

The images in the table above display only a small sample of experiences that one may have, which provide learning that, in turn, is information that adds to the basket of total education. Having work skills gives a worker expertise [knowledge] that bolsters understanding of one's work or profession. The more variety of experiences one has, the greater chance of being smart and wise. This is just common sense! 

Education:  Learning is information that becomes part of education. What happens during many experiences is that we pick up information from playing sports, watching TV, raising a family, dancing, work, visiting different cultures and so on. But although we learn from experiences, interpreting experiences without education is shallow, incomplete and often lacks scientific background or the truth.

Education is needed to integrate experiences.  An education helps one recognize that some experiences are more meaningful than others and we can learn from them. Education is needed to interpret and distinguish between which experiences are more significant and important than others. An education helps to integrate numerous experiences into a bigger growth package.  Both experiences and education may still not make a person wise if one lacks values by which to live. Just having a car doesn't make one wise .... it is knowing how to drive safely that makes one wise.

Education helps us interpret the experiences. Education gives one the ability to unify all experiences and perceive how these help identify or summarize the big important picture. A lower education helps one to see the small trees in the forest, but a higher education makes it easier to see the big forest.

The level of education one has affects how one interprets experiences and the values one has. This has not been fully explored by Jeste and his researchers at UCSD.  But .... Kohlberg links education with morality and values in the next section. Applying values to all of this helps us to clarify experiences that are good and bad.

Values and morality: We need values and morals to steer one through life and give meaning to experiences. It is morals that define the character of a person. And it is the psychic values of good bad, fair and unfair that define integrity and give us guidance in behavior. We live in societies that need regulation of behavior and stem the wild west cowboy behavior to protect the majority. The rules of minor games and sports in childhood are learned and integrated into the adult laws of society.

morality A good example of morality is the biblical story of Moses and the 10 commandments. The 10 commandments were about how one should behave [experiences] in society. We learn from experiences and education, but these need to be tested in everyday life by values as good or bad, true or not true, fair and unfair and so on. These are values one picks up [inculcation] from others, playing and learning. These are values that one needs to make good decisions for oneself, society and living.

Morality generally comes into play when people interact with each other. This suggests that morality is a system of "shared" values which "justify" actions. As such, morality is about deciding on best courses of action in all situations.

Sorochan agrees with Psychology Today  Psychology Today: Morality, perceiving morality as a public system of survival, linking to Kohlberg's research.

Kohlberg's research about morality, in five world cultures in the 1960's and published in 1972, summarized the different stages and values as linked to the level of education:

    [Click on image to view features of a stage]

Stage 1
Click to view Stage 1
Stage 2
Click to view Stage 2
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 3
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 4
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 4.5
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 5
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 6

Kohlberg's Features of Moral [developmental] Transition

1. Transition: One must progress through the stages in order, and one cannot get to a higher stage without passing through the stage immediately preceding it. Moral development is growth, and like all growth, takes place according to a pre-determined sequence.

2. Subjects cannot comprehend moral reasoning at a stage more than one stage beyond their own.

3. Individuals can reason one level above their own present level.

4. It is quite possible for a human being to be physically mature and of adult age but not morally mature.

These features are simplified by Chris MacDonald in his article, Moral Decision Making, pointing out that morality generally comes into play when people interact with each other. This suggests that morality is a system of "shared" values which "justify" actions. 

Well, all this presentation may be unnecessary and even redundant, but wisdom is complex and not easy to understand or accept. We all think we are smart and know it all. But this is just not true in everyday life, for each of us have different experiences, education, values and levels of wisdom. We live at different levels of wisdom! Some of us can make better decisions than others and the reason should be becoming clearer and more understandable as you continue to read.

Children learn something and they interpret this as being smart. They fail and succeed and learn from their mistakes. Learning not to make the same mistake again is being wise. Adults also interpret what they learn as wisdom. But wisdom comes in stages of maturation, having an education and growing older with many varied experiences. This is why one can argue that older persons should be wiser than younger persons.

So if person who works in just one job, has limited education and never travels, will probably have an incomplete perception of wisdom. Yes, have some wisdom and able to live with morals but not a complete package of varied experiences and higher education as an older educated person would have. For example, a law judge would have more wisdom of right and wrong compared to someone who is just a citizen, because he has the background [law] education, experiences and skill to interpret experiences with values-morality. Another example would be a university professor who is a researcher and has vast knowledge of nutrition would be more wise in deciding what foods are best than someone who lacks such knowledge and experience. Yes, this general public everyday perception of wisdom would be a little different compared to that of Jeste and his medical researchers.

There are a few major traits that are used to define the components of wisdom:  Jeste: Emerging Science of Wisdom 2019

Transcendence is what we learn as children. Babies are born with the instinct to survive and be selfish. As babies grow and become older, they sense a belonging to their parents.  As they become older, children move beyond the "I" stage and discover that their small world of family is made up of many families living in a bigger realm, the community.  As adults they eventually mature sensing a belonging to the universe as a whole. Now life is perceived as bigger than oneself. A sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself.

Bonding and belonging: An extension of belonging to something bigger than oneself is a sense of spirituality, a bond with family/religion/land. It is finding greater meaning in life when one connects to something larger than oneself. Bonding with others creates a sense of caring for others and making good decisions for oneself and society. This bonding also helps to make good decisions like doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons.  Often we lack information to make good decisions and look to those around us for support when the wisest of choices are necessary. This reflects dependability that relates to responsibility and morality.

Compassion is having sensitivity, sensing another person's point of view even though not necessarily agreeing. It is identifying with other people, responding with warmth and care and suffering together.

Psycho-social characteristics of wisdom. These include getting along with others, having a deeper understanding of things, acknowledging other people’s point of view, and ability to see the truth, that is, to perceive reality as it is and not as one wants it to be; seeking insight instead of selfish comfort.

Adaptability: Modifying one's behaviors and lifestyle while a searching for the truth and meaning to life as we approach the senior years. It is the instinct to survive. 

Well, this discourse on wisdom is kind of messy! The individual traits lack an explanation as to how one really functions in real life. What makes wisdom tick in each of us may be viewed as characteristics of wisdom .... a person’s actual private, internal compass in how one behaves socially:

  • have courage: stand up for your beliefs; not afraid to face uncertainty
  • have courage: not afraid to try new things, even fail and learn from failure
  • have self-awareness: knowing who you really are; your strengths and weaknesses
  • know one's place in the world
  • can recognize one's level of competence [know what you can and cannot do]
  • be able to put things in perspective
  • be able to see the big picture [the forest as well as the trees]
  • be able to recognize what is important in all issues [deeper understanding of things]
  • have an open mind; accepting of and receptive to change or new ideas
  • able to be tolerant and accept criticism
  • shows respect for others
  • able to acknowledge other people’s point of view
  • able to see and search for the truth
  • able to perceive reality as it is and not as one wants it to be
  • have a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself
  • is dependable; have a sense of responsibility; keep one's promises
  • have a meaningful purpose to life
  • want to be good, perfect and the best one can be
  • have empathy: can recognize and share feelings of others; see things from another person’s point of view; focusing on someone else’s needs, struggles, and feelings
  • have compassion: acknowledge other people’s point of view
  • able to be generous: show kindness and willingness to help others
  • have integrity: tell the truth, be honest, incorruptible, do the right thing, be moral
  • have a sense of humor and make others laugh
  • have social skills; can relate to others; disagree without being disagreeable
  • understand what not to say or do
  • not afraid to show emotions
  • have self esteem: feel adequate and confident
  • have discipline, self control and staying power in difficult times
  • have respect for law, property and others
  • able to predict and plan for the future
  • not afraid to use gut intuition to make difficult decisions
  • can immerse oneself in creative flow as in work or tasks
  • have a passion for work
  • is a life-long learner throughout life
  • is a good listener
  • can make good decisions: doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons

Values by themselves are not included as separate characteristics, instead, they are implied in the statements; as in making good decisions based on having good values. Each characteristic may be plotted on a graph that changes as we mature with experiences and get older. All characteristics are interwoven to define one's level of wisdom. 

An observation - Why wisdom?: We need wisdom to survive in the modern world of rapid changes.

Wisdom is ignored and lacking by many in American society and the world. This is obvious when one studies the mass shooting in the past ten years and the dysfunctional political systems in governments. Young persons are swayed with misinformation but often lack values to interpret information from mass media and often make bad or improper decisions. Politicians are swayed by big money and ego power! Many tend to seek comfort in their distorted perception of the truth instead of facing reality and making good decisions. Others tend to argue in an effort to force their biased one-sided argument to be accepted.

The cognitive component of wisdom refers to the ability to see the truth, that is, to perceive reality as it is and not as one wants it to be. However, one can only arrive at wisdom by becoming aware that subjective judgments can cloud one's reality of life.  Ardelt: Effects wisdom on aging 2000

We elect politicians on the assumption that they will represent their constituents and use their wisdom in making wise decisions. But many politicians fail and become corrupt when they lack or do not use the values and morals to make wise decisions for the people they are supposed to represent. Or they become addicted to money and power that lack the moral guiding compass for the good of society. This is a flaw in democracy.

Parents assume that they are wiser than their children, just because they are older and are parents. So they discipline their children: "Obey me!" This usually works when children are very young. But when children physically mature into young adults, then they may be smarter than their parents in making some decisions .... providing they have good values, more learning from experiences and more education than their parents.

To live wisely, one needs a variety of experiences, learning from these experiences, having the three R's of education and having values to interpret the experiences and education. QUOTE: The more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to learn that “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates

The reader will find Dr. Dilip Jeste's article, Science of Wisdom a superb and most informative article about wisdom. [ Note: This article may be difficult to display as it is published in a journal that requires the seeker of the article to register and so on. Alternative article would be:   Article by Jeste: Science of Wisdom is no longer active. may be easier to display.]


Ardelt Monika, "Antecedents and Effects of Wisdom in Old Age Antecedents," 2000.  Ardelt: Effects wisdom on aging 2000

Bangen,Katherine J., Dilip V Jeste and Thomas Weeks, "Defining and assessing wisdom: A Review of the literature," The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, April, 2013.  Bangen: Review of wisdom literature  2013

Bangen, Katherine J., Dilip V Jeste and Thomas Weeks, "Defining and assessing wisdom: A Review of the literature," The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, April, 2013.  Bangen: Review of wisdom literature  2013

California Psychics, "The 10 Most Desirable Traits in Human Beings,"  California Psychics: Desirable human traits

Dittmann Kohli & Baltes, 1990, p. 55 Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System Human Development 259 2004;47:257–285

Iva Lloyd , "Human beings as complex, dynamic systems of energy," The energetics of health, 2009.   Iva: humans are complex systems

Evidence Based Wisdom, "EBW Graphics Series."  EBW: Evidence based wisdom

Jeste Dilip V., Monika Ardelt, Dan Blazer, Helena C. Kraemer, George Vaillant, Thomas W. Meeks, "Expert Consensus on Characteristics of Wisdom: A Delphi Method Study," The Gerontologist, Volume 50, Issue 5, October 2010, Pages 668–680, https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnq022.  Jeste:Wisdom characteristics 2010

Jeste Dilip and Lee Ellen, "The Emerging Empirical Science of Wisdom: Definition, Measurement, Neurobiology, Longevity, and Interventions," Harvard Review of Psychiatry: May/June 2019 - Volume 27 - Issue 3 - p 127–140 doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000205.  Jeste: Emerging Science of Wisdom 2019

Jeste Dilip V., "The science of wisdom," Stein Institute for Research on Aging, UCSD School of medicine.  Article by Jeste: Science of wisdom is no longer active.

Jeste Dilip, "Wisdom Profiles: Dilip Jeste,"  Jeste: Wisdom profiles

Kohlberg, Lawrence, Stages of Moral Development, 1971. (October 18, 2001).

Kohlberg, Lawrence. (1981). The meaning and measurement of moral development. Massachusetts: Clark University Press.

LaFee Scott, "Wisdom at the End of Life," UCSD News, January 23, 2018.  LaFee: Wisdom at end of life 2018

Nordstrom Alan, "Wisdom 101 A course in practical wisdom."  Wisdom 101

Pursey Kirstie, "7 Traits that separate a wise person from a smart person," Learning Mind.  Pursey: wise person

Robbins Gary, "We all have some wisdom. But what is it?," The San Diego Union Tribune, April 2, 2015.  Robbins: Wisdom what is it? 2015

Schenkman Lauren, "How wise are you? One scientist is trying to create a test," Ideas, Ted.com, Mar 27, 2018.  Schenkam: defining wisdom 2018

Sorochan Walter, "Kohlberg's stages of moral development."  Sorochan: Kohlberg moral stages

Sorochan Walter, "Stages of moral development in humans."  Sorochan: Kohlberg's stages or moral development

Stanford University, "The Definition of Morality," First published Wed Apr 17, 2002; substantive revision Mon Feb 8, 2016.  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

Sternberg Robert J., A Handbook of Wisdom: Psychological Perspectives Paperback, Cambridge University Press, September 14, 2001.  Sternberg: Book of wisdom 2001

Thomas Michael, and others, "A new scale for assessing wisdom ...," Journal of Psychiatric Research, Volume 108, January 2019, pages 40-47.  Thomas: Assessing wisdom 2019

Thomas Michael L., and others, "Individual differences in level of wisdom are associated with brain activation during a moral decision-making task," Brain and Behavior, May 01, 2019.  Thomas: wisdom-brain link to moral tasks 2019