Happiness or Wisdom? Enjoy A Clearer Picture

poloroid photography

In this time of pandemic, amidst threats of death and illness, social distancing might just be the ticket to give us time for contemplation. We begin by looking at our self (which may not be singular) and then we look at the question: happiness or wisdom?


Like a Polaroid picture that develops in front of your eyes, from whiteness into shapes that become more visible, so too do ideas mix and mingle in your mind, to form a clearer picture.

boring meeting 2It was in a Human Resources Leadership seminar that a Power Point slide with two bullet points was shown:

      • People are not thinking creatures.”
      • People are feeling creatures.”

(See also: Enjoyment, Cookies and Purposeful Purposelessness.)

What the would-be leaders didn’t know was that these bullets were misfires from what brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor said, which was, “biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (My Stroke of Insight, 2006). Her point being: we feel first, then we think.

Bolte Taylor’s message: “Based upon my experience with losing my left mind (the result of a stroke and not misplacement), I whole-heartedly believe that the feeling of deep inner peace is neurological circuitry located in our right brain” (TED Talk, 2008).

But back in the leadership seminar, inner peace isn’t on the agenda. Attendees prefer coffee with their accreditation. Their brains’ position between rationality (left brain) and instinctive, sensual responses (right brain) remained skewed leftward.

Right Brain and Drawing Ability
Source: Artclass Challenge

Note: Researchers determined to debunk clear left/right brain functions as endorsed by people like Matthew Fox (the priest, not Lost actor), Oprah Winfrey and author Daniel Pink, for self-help and spiritual purposes, have found that logic, intuition and creativity engage both sides of the brain (Beyond the ‘left’ and ‘right’ brain…).

As William James put it in 1901, “A mind is a system of ideas, each with the excitement it arouses, and with tendencies impulsive and inhibitive, which mutually check or reinforce one another” (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 194).

william james

Said James, “… our moral and practical attitude, at any given time is always a resultant of two sets of forces within us, impulses pushing us one way and obstructions and inhibitions holding us back. “Yes! yes!” say the impulses; “No! no!” say the inhibitions” (ibid. p. 256).

rubics cube head 2It could be because, as psychologist Brian Little says, we have three “selves” that argue (How Many Selves Do We Have?…).

The first “self” is “biogenic” (bio as in biology). It comes from our genes (note: saying, “My genes told me to shoot people,” doesn’t make it OK).

The second “self” is “sociogenic” (socio as in social). It’s how surroundings, family and culture shape us (note: saying, “My culture made me racist,” doesn’t make it OK).

The third “self” is “idiogenic” (idio as in idiosyncrasy). These are the things that make you youthe features that, as Little says, “emanate from our core concerns… the things that matter most… and afford us the opportunity to be stewards of our destiny” (TED talk 2016).

biogenic sociogenic and idiogenic

Needless to say, not all our “selves” play nicely. This explains why you might act like someone you don’t know, as if driven by outside forces.

you're not you when you're hungry

As Little explains, the quality of your life is “contingent upon the sustainable pursuit of core personal projects” (Little, 2008).

The question is: What’s your core personal project? Do you have one? Is it happiness or wisdom? (unless they’re not mutually exclusive).

wrong way

(see also: A Way of Seeing (Part 2))

Writer and teacher Andy Wood put it this way, “Wisdom is a boring, party-killing, nag… Wisdom asks questions about consequences when all I want to do is enjoy myself…,” and yet, “I can’t remember seeing any wise people fired for cutting corners. Or arrested for embezzling money” (LifeVesting, 2010).

Happiness refers to quality of life or well-being. It implies that life is good without specifying what exactly is good about life.

good dog

Some philosophers say wisdom is a supreme part of happiness while others maintain that a wiser view on reality can make one less happy.

Ad Bergsma and Monika Ardelt (2011) found that wise people possess positive qualities such as “a mature and integrated personality, superior judgment skills in difficult life matters, and the ability to cope with the vicissitudes of life.”

wisdom for dummies

They found that the development of wisdom may be joyful by way of self-transcendence. Viktor Frankl, for example, found his higher purpose while suffering in a concentration camp.

Nisbett, Grossman, and other researchers found that happiness fosters wisdom when feelings of well-being facilitate wise-reasoning which helps us to navigate life’s challenges (source).

graph of well-being and wise-reasoning
In this graph we see the association between well-being and wise reasoning by age—the wiser people were, the higher their well-being (source).

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed how wisdom engages a “special kind of happiness that transcends normal pleasures.” He broke it down into two camps, Materialists and Idealists: “The materialist insists on facts… and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration…” (The Transcendentalist, 1842).

ralph waldo emerson quote

Through advanced technology, researchers are finding connections between materialist and idealist, between spirituality, art, the brain and states of consciousness. It may well be that we are more than “meat puppets” controlled by robot-like brains.

Thousands of years ago Epicurus observed how you can have the most happiness by prudently evaluating things to avoid and things to choose.

epicurus quote

Wisdom and happiness go together like “milk and cookies” for the ultimate enjoyment (unless you are lactose intolerant).

(Cue music: Beegie Adair Trio, “Autumn Leaves”).

The trick: Enjoy being wise by wisely enjoying.