UW history professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen suspects that, right now, it doesn’t seem very wise to talk about wisdom.
“In our current violent, volatile, fractious moment,” she said, “on the eve of an uncertain transfer of power, during a global pandemic that has claimed over two million lives thus far, and with the world still lurching toward irreparable climate catastrophe, the word wisdom may seem a little bit jarring or romantic or escapist or downright silly.”
Concepts of Wisdom and Well-Being
Ratner-Rosenhagen studies the history of intellectual movements, and she spoke about the pursuit of wisdom during The UW Now Livestream event on January 19, titled Wisdom and Well-Being. Joining her was Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and the founding director of the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds.
Ratner-Rosenhagen noted that the concepts of wisdom and well-being are interconnected — that wisdom isn’t the accumulation of knowledge but rather the cultivation of practices. “Wisdom is not something that can be set on a shelf in a leather-bound volume or put under a glass dome,” she said, “but wisdom is something that one does as a spiritual exercise, and some people refer to it unapologetically as a habit.”
Davidson described four pillars of well-being: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. He argued that both wisdom and well-being can be learned, often through mindful connection with others. “We can osmotically learn that by being in the presence of wise people,” he said. “That is really something that is so important and illustrates the nature of the kind of learning that it takes to achieve well-being and to exhibit wisdom.”
Keys to Pursuing Mindfulness
Both professors gave brief presentations and then took questions from the audience that followed live on YouTube. Mike Knetter, the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association’s president and CEO, served as host and moderator.
Both professors argued that the keys to pursuing wisdom and well-being lie in mindfulness and connection with others. “The average adult spends 47 percent of her or his waking life not paying attention to what they’re doing,” Davidson said. “And 76 percent of Americans report themselves to be either moderately or significantly lonely. And loneliness is a more significant risk factor for mortality than obesity.”
Episodes of The UW Now Livestream are posted each Tuesday, and the next episode will take place January 26.