What is wisdom (Part 3): Dimensions of well-being

If wisdom is the art and science of “living well” in order to promote well-being, our next task is to understand what is known about living well, well-being, and how these are related.


Let’s start with the goal of wisdom, which is to promote well-being.  What exactly is well-being, and how do we measure it?  The most common measure of well-being is a short scale (survey) of life satisfaction.  And, believe it or not, it is often measured with the single question, “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?”  This measure is what psychologists refer to as a cognitive appraisal, meaning that it reflects what you think or believe.  Other measures instead focus on your moment-to-moment experience or mood.  These are – you guessed it – emotional appraisals.  Another, less common set of measures attempts to gauge whether you feel a sense of purpose or meaning in life.  These types of measures add the dimension of reflection to an assessment of well-being.  Each of these provides an additional perspective and, collectively, they offer a good gauge of your general well-being.  In fact, these are the three dimensions of well-being tracked by the Happiness Research Institute and they happen to map very closely to the three dimensions of one of the best-known measures of wisdom proposed by psychology researcher Monika Ardelt in 2003.

While simplicity is a virtue, the challenge with these measures is that they are general measures.  If, for example, you are unsatisfied with your job, very satisfied with your spouse, and somewhat satisfied with your health – then does “average” sufficiently describe how satisfied you are with your life?  Not likely, and it certainly doesn’t give you a sense of what specifically you need to change in order to promote your well-being.  For that, we need to dig deeper into the dimensions of well-being and understand what is known about what “living well” means within each.  We’ll do that next, focusing on each of these dimensions of well-being in turn:  mind, body, occupation, resources, physical surroundings, social network, and spirituality.

Living well

Aristotle acknowledged that while there was agreement about “living well” as the goal of life, there wasn’t much agreement on what living well actually entailed.  Fortunately, in modern times we’ve actually learned quite a bit from research focused specifically on “positive psychology” and well-being.  I’ll summarize the highlights, moving from the “self” (your mind and body) outwards (e.g., physical surroundings, social network).

  1. Mind
    • be self-compassionate, challenge your negative thoughts, and question negative feelings
    • learn meditation or simple breathing exercises
    • seek variety and mental stimulation – find “the zone” somewhere in that broad space between feeling bored and overwhelmed
    • seek personal growth by learning new skills
  2. Body
    • exercise regularly – a lot easier to stick with when you find things you enjoy doing!
    • get enough sleep – this requires devoting sufficient time, but also avoiding sleep disrupters like caffeine and alcohol which disrupt deep sleep
    • eat a healthy diet  – unprocessed foods, more vegetables and fruits, plant-based protein like beans and nuts, less simple carbohydrates including sugar, less meat (especially processed red meat)
    • no tobacco… or alcohol (the latter is hard to avoid in our society, but it affects so much that it is worth trying to abstain or seriously moderate)
  3. Resources
    • finances are important, especially if you are in debt or are not saving for the future
    • however, also watch the trade-off with time (most of us are time-poor yet we seem to be less concerned about time than about money; both are very important)
    • when your finances are solid, then de-emphasize the pursuit of money, image, and status (extrinsic goals) in favor of personal growth, relationships, etc. (intrinsic goals)
    • be a wise consumer! – when and how we spend our resources (money, time, and energy) affects all of the other dimensions of well-being
    • note that this dimension is intentionally listed between the “self” (mind and body) and everything external to you; in a very real sense the relationship between the self and the external world is mediated by, i.e., dependent on, your resources, so it’s vital to be very intentional about how you manage them
  4. Physical surroundings
    • find a home that gives you a sense of place and security but that doesn’t sap your resources of time and money
    • limit your commute, especially in a car (bikes or trains are much better for you, even when they take more time since it’s not “dead time” behind a wheel)
    • keep your home clean and clutter-free
    • get out in nature – the Japanese have a cool term for this – shinrin-yoku – which means “forest bathing”
  5. Social network
    • a Harvard study over 80 years long (and going) has studied the lives of the same people over time and found that the number one determinant of overall well-being (including mental and physical health) is personal relationships; not having many friends, necessarily, but having a few high-quality relationships
    • beyond close friends, develop relationships with neighbors, and within your community
    • being kind to others makes you happier (and you may be the one needing help one day!)
  6. Occupation (paid and unpaid)
    • do something that gives you a sense of purpose and accomplishment
    • be part of something important
    • yet, maintain a sense of autonomy/self-control
  7. Spirituality
    • life really is a miracle when you think about it, and it helps to realize that we are all part of a big, mysterious, super-creative universe
    • regularly connecting with your sense of God or spirit is important, whether embedded in religion, philosophy, or your own personal approach

How is living well related to well-being?

It’s obvious that living well promotes your well-being, right?  But it’s actually better than that.  Yes, there are many things that you can do to promote your well-being, and to live your values by promoting others’ well-being as well (which also promotes your well-being, per above).  Research has shown that it also works the other way.  Being happy, for example, promotes your physical health and longevity.  Being happy also makes you more productive at work.  And, being healthier and more productive both make you happier, etc…  It’s a great example of a “virtuous cycle” that reinforces itself. 

So if wisdom is the art and science of living well in an effort to promote well-being, we need to focus on what living well means with respect to all of these dimensions, yet recognize that they are all interdependent, e.g., stress from work to afford a certain lifestyle affects physical health and relationships.  Conversely, strong relationships can buffer stress, bring great joy, and soften the perceived need to accumulate wealth and status. 

The hard part is initiating positive change, but the rewards are non-linear (in a good way).  The key is to understand the details of how to change – to understand what, specifically, you should be doing more of (and less of).

Previous Part 2: An example and definitions

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