.: 25 March 2017 :.

Wisdom, at the heart of happiness

When most people hear the word “wisdom” they think of something for sages, gurus and scholars. They think of white-bearded wizards like Harry Potter’s mentor, Dumbledore. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, shared this view that wisdom was theoretical and abstract, and the gift of only a few. Aristotle disagreed.

Imagine an everyday situation like this. Your colleague proudly asks you if like her new haircut. Should you be honest with the risk to offend her or just pretend like you really like it? According to Aristotle such a situation requires wisdom as well.

Aristotle thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demand choices — like when to be loyal to a friend, or how to be fair, or how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry — and making the right choices demanded wisdom. To take the example of anger. The central question for Aristotle was not whether anger was good or bad, or what the nature of “good” in fact was. It was the concrete issue of what to do in a particular situation: who to be angry at, for how long, in what way, and for what purpose.

Aristotle thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demand choices and making the right choices demanded wisdom.

The wisdom to answer such questions and to act rightly is distinctly practical, not theoretical. It depends on our ability to understand a situation, to consider how to have the appropriate feelings about it, to be deliberate about what is appropriate in these circumstances, and to act. This wisdom arises when we carefully balance our cognitive, reflective and compassionate skills. It’s a kind of muscle that isn’t just reserved for the Obamas and Ghandis of this world, but can be trained by anybody.

Why does this all matter? Numerous scientific studies have shown that wisdom lies at the heart of happier and more meaningful lives. Wise people generally live longer, suffer from fewer depressions and have better relationships. As our world continues to get more uncertain and complex, and technology further entwines our fates, wisdom might provide an answer that taps into the essence of what it means to be human.

How might we design for the pursue of wisdom? Through my thesis I hope to answer this question. I will be sharing the results in two weeks.

© 2020 Martijn van den Broeck
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