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The Psychology of Wisdom:

The Psychology of Wisdom:

How does being wise relate to resilience?

By: Lyn Worsley
Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Resilience Centre

The connection between wisdom and resilience

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

The study of psychology is the study of patterns in human behaviour and the practice of psychology is about how to change thoughts and behaviour. The statement of the serenity prayer reminds us that psychology is not a fixed science with exact answers for every behaviour.
However over the past 50 years or so the practice of psychology has become broader and has encompassed a number of different dimensions of the human condition. Psychotherapy has moved towards the passing on of insight, helping people to stop and pause with their behaviour and to gain insight in order to change or analyse.
So today there are many psychotherapists who would say they are employed as wise consultants for families businesses and individuals.

The Definition of wisdom:
I can’t define wisdom and I can’t define what it takes to make a person wise, but I know when I hear wise words and I know when I meet a wise person.

There are three dimensions that are referred to in the wisdom literature. Firstly, psychology has studied intelligence and has measured and measured millions of people to establish measures that determine if a person has high, low or average intelligence. These measures track knowledge, problem solving strategies, memory, processing speed and a number of other processes in the brain to get a whole measure of intelligence. But are intelligent people wise?

Secondly there is the ability to have insight. Many people have insight and understanding of others, which is a valuable thing to be compassionate and empathetic, but it can also go towards their ability to manipulate others for their own gain. So are insightful people wise?

The third dimension notes that wise people can empathise with others and show kindness when it is needed. So does wisdom mean being kind and empathetic? However there are many people who are kind in the wrong places, which make many problems worse. Such as, sharing sweet foods with children who develop cavities and obesity in later life. So are kind people wise?

We can see there are a number of dimensions that lead us to think through the term wisdom. Recently in the study of positive psychology wisdom is referred as positive deviance. (Lavine 2011)

Positive Deviance:
Positive deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. (Lavine 2011)
Positive deviance focuses attention on the extreme end of the positive spectrum. And it brings in the notion that there is a process in place towards the end, and that the aim is to move along towards a better future gradually.
Wisdom is a bit like this. The wise person seems to know what actions, thoughts and behaviour move towards a better outcome.
So to do this we do need knowledge, as well as insight as well as kindness and empathy otherwise we would not read the situation well to know how to deviate in a positive direction.

Wisdom and resilience:
Wise people are also socially savvy and can activate their resources around them to make the choices that lead to a more positive outcome. This is how wisdom relates to resilience, as resilience has been defined as having social navigation and negotiation skills (Ungar, 2010).
In the practice of psychotherapy there is the study of humans and there is also the study of the interaction between people. When we relate to another we not only take in the perspective of our own thoughts and feelings but also those of the other person in front of us. This means we take in information, we assess, analyze, and understand.
We learn this through our everyday interactions and the more positive these interactions are, the more likely we are to learn the positive deviance skills to help us to make socially savvy and wise choices. The Resilience Doughnut ((Worsley, 2006) shows the development of resilience is through the interaction of positive intentional contexts in a persons life. Within these positive contexts, skills develop, which in turn enable a person to activate the most useful resources during tough times throughout life.

Using positive deviance and resilience tools in therapy.
When practicing wisdom in psychotherapy, understanding another person involves more than knowing theories, having a kind heart and insight. It involves understanding the person’s different contexts and the reactions of others around them to really understand them and to see the positive direction for them.
When we think about things from our own being we are merely applying knowledge and the psychology skills. But when we think about things from the others perspective and really totally get into their space we are then able to understand and relate at a different level. This leads us to a place that increases our potential for wise reflection. Because when we are in the space of another we can see what they need to understand next in order to make the next step towards a more positive future.
A lot of psychology is looking for the right words and saying the right things and directing the right way for clients. But to apply wise counsel involves being in the others space and seeing what are the right actions to take for them, and being able to give them this information when they are ready to take it in.

To paraphrase Carl Jung 

“The right insight at the wrong time is the wrong insight.”

As a therapist I can tell someone that this relationship is terrible for him or her, or their alcohol addiction is ruining their life but until they are ready to hear this insight, it is the wrong insight. A more helpful insight is understanding their place in the relationship, and their experience of the alcohol use. When I experience another’s perspective I then have a better understanding of when to say things and when to not.

Using wisdom and resilience skills at Christmas time:

Christmas involves catching up with relatives and friends who we often find difficult. It also may involve sharing stories or our own difficulties throughout the year. Being wise at Christmas time may involve listening to stories and seeking to understand another without judgment or giving advice. Listening and reflecting for more understanding can help each of us to gain further insight into life, not for our own gain but for interest in another.

Being socially savvy at Christmas time may also be an opportunity to be deviant in a positive direction, helping others, caring for others and reaching out to those who may be worse off than ourselves.
So this Christmas, lets be wise, lets be resilient and lets all practice positive deviance.


Lavine, M. (2011). Positive Deviance. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Ungar, M. (2010). What is resilience across cultures and contexts? Advances to the theory of positive development among individuals and families under stress. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 21(1), 1-16. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08975351003618494

Worsley, L. (2006). The Resilience Doughnut. The secret of strong kids. Sydney: Wild and Woolley publications.

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