Book Review: Wiser The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good

by Dilip Jeste, MD, with Scott LaFee
reviewed by Kate Madden Yee

ASK ANYONE how to become wise, and they will prob- ably say that the task requires time: The older we are, the wiser. But Dilip Jeste, MD, takes a different perspective in his book Wiser: The Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion, and What Makes Us Good. Wisdom does come from experience—specifically, the mistakes we make and how we learn from them over the course of our lives—but it also has a biological component, “a form of advanced cognitive and emotional development driven by experience.” And if that’s true, then there are concrete ways we can deepen our wisdom at any age.

The book presents research that defines wisdom’s basic components: empathy and compassion, emotional regulation, an ability to act decisively even in the face of daily uncertainties, insight and self-reflection, and spirituality. Along with examples of everyday people practic- ing these skills—as well as more famous folks like Benjamin Franklin, Princess Diana, and U.S. Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III—Jeste offers specific ways to cultivate wisdom. These range from deepening compassion through lovingkindness meditation, noticing emotions in order to better regulate them, finding ways to be of service through volunteering, and cultivating one’s spiritual path by spending time “in thoughtful communion with other souls.” None of these actions produce instant results, Jeste cautions, but doing them further develops wisdom by changing how our brains respond to life’s challenges. “Becoming wiser is a process,” he writes.

In the end, our efforts to develop our own wisdom may make all of us sager. Individual and societal wisdom “may grow in parallel, a mutually enhancing and reinforcing association in which caring societies foster personal wisdom among all citizens,” Jeste notes, echoing the Sufi poet Rumi, who declared much the same: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

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