Special Episode 250 - The Science Behind the Wisdom of the Ages

 Ta-da! It’s episode 250! In celebration, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers a deep dive into the science behind three of our most common truisms. Also, be sure to listen to the end for an important announcement!

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #250
wisdom of the ages

Truisms are, by definition, clear and evident. We take them at face value because they make intuitive sense. But are they true? Does the science line up with grandma’s kitchen-table advice? This week, to celebrate episode number 250, we’ll take a deep dive into the science behind three of the best-known truisms. 

Let’s get right into it:

Truism #1: Treat others as you’d like to be treated.

It’s the Golden Rule. But why, on an evolutionary level, do we bother being nice? Why do we instinctively teach our kids to share, help, and be kind?

Several theories have popped up over the decades. First came the idea of the selfish gene, which posited that we are altruistic towards our relatives to maximize survival of the family tree.

But that explanation seemed too narrow. Why, then, would we be nice to friends or strangers? Indeed, the selfish gene doesn’t explain the Sex and the City episode where Carrie’s diaphragm gets stuck and Samantha helps her get it out. (“And I just had my nails done.”)

Next, the idea of reciprocal altruism came along—the idea that we might help a non-relative so they would owe us. For instance, a famous study in the uber-prestigious journal Science found that female baboons who spent a lot of time grooming and resting together—the baboon equivalent of #girlsquad—were more likely to have infants that survived to their first birthday. Maybe altruism existed because it was a way of banking favors?

It’s possible, but that still doesn’t explain why we help or cooperate with strangers, like holding open a door for the person behind us or lining up for the bus rather than rushing it all at once.

The answer? A new theory of indirect reciprocity, which states that people are willing to help others in order to build their reputation, which effectively banks help and support for the future. For better or worse, altruism increases when it is public, which explains why charities display the names of their donors on the brick walk, the donor wall, or the playbill. 

That leaves us with a question: can people be kind without a reward? Is there such a thing as pure altruism?

That leaves us with a question: can people be kind without a reward? Is there such a thing as pure altruism? As of yet, there’s no definitive answer, but in the meantime, let’s look at a study from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

In the study, participants heard about two mystery tasks. In the first, they were told, every time they answered a question correctly, they’d get a raffle ticket for a $30 prize. In the second task, which was described as dull and boring, every time they answered a question correctly, they’d get absolutely nothing.

Next, each participant was informed they had a partner in another room and was told to assign one of the tasks to them. The partner won’t know you assigned them their task, the researchers said. They’ll think it was just random chance. 

Now, before the participant split the tasks, they were asked to do one of three things. The first group was asked to do nothing—this was the control group. But the second group was asked to imagine how they would feel if they were in the partner’s place. The third group was asked to imagine how the partner herself was feeling. It’s subtle, but different—the second group is asked to picture themselves in a different situation, while the third group is asked to put themselves in their partner’s shoes—a potent shot of empathy. 

What happened? When asked to put themselves in their partner’s shoes, participants significantly more often assigned the desirable task (and the chance to win raffle tickets) to the partner, sticking themselves with the boring task.  

Why would they do this? The researchers concluded that the empathy generated by imagining the partner’s perspective drove altruism. Empathy was the key to the Golden Rule, even when the partner would never know. It was the equivalent of the “Anonymous” listings on the donor wall. In short, imagining how others feel sets the standard for how you should treat them.

Truism #2: Money doesn’t buy happiness.

Do money and happiness go together like peanut butter and jelly? Or, to quote Cal Naughton, Jr. of Talladega Nights, is it more like cocaine and waffles?

You may have heard of $75,000 as the tipping point at which money no longer buys happiness. But where does this magic number come from? To find out, let’s check out the source, a study by not one but two Nobel Prize winners, economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, who sought the definitive answer to the question: does money buy happiness?

The answer? It depends. 

On the one hand, if you define happiness as day-to-day positive emotion—feeling happy, not being sad, not feeling stressed, then money only helps up to an annual income of $75,000.

But if you define happiness as life satisfaction—feeling content and satisfied when you reflect on your life, then the relationship between higher income and higher life satisfaction holds, even as income climbs. 

In other words, having a lot of money doesn’t free you from stress, fighting with your spouse, or worrying about your kids, but it does improve your quality of life—broadening your choices and freeing up time to focus on your interests—which increases overall life satisfaction. In short, being rich can be fulfilling, but it doesn’t make you happy.

Being rich can be fulfilling, but it doesn’t make you happy.

Now, there’s more to our relationship with money than happiness. Money has a far-reaching effect on our psyches and can affect our values, our identity, and how we see the world.

In an elegant study, Stanford University psychologist Dr. Hazel Markus sorted study participants by parent’ education. Participants who had at least one parent with a college degree were in the middle-class group, while participants whose parents had not graduated from college were in the working-class group.

After filling out some questionnaires, participants were offered a token of appreciation—a pen. Here’s how it worked: A research assistant would grab five pens out of a big bag of high-quality pens all of the same brand. The only difference is that some were orange and some were green. The assistant would quickly make sure the majority of the pens—3 or 4 out of the 5, were the same color. In this example, let’s pretend the majority was orange. The remaining one or two pens were the other color; in this case, green. Then the participant was asked to pick one pen. 

What happened? Overwhelmingly, the working-class participants chose the pen in the majority; in our example, the orange pen. But just as overwhelmingly, the middle-class participants chose the green pen—the less common, more unusual pen.

Why? This seems weird. All the pens are equal. The only thing that’s different is whether the color is common or unique. 

But that tells the tale: over this and other studies like it, a pattern emerges. Higher income individuals tend to value individualism, uniqueness, and choice, while lower income individuals value interdependence, agreement, and, one might say, community. 

Neither of these things are bad—being your own person and being part of a community are both good things. But in a world that’s both richer and lonelier than ever before, it shows that the relationship between money and happiness is more complicated than a David Lynch film festival.

Truism #3: It’s the journey, not the destination.

To summarize Proust: We do not receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves ... for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. 

Or, even more succinctly, from Shakespeare: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

In other words, it’s the journey, not the destination.

The take home? Wisdom can’t be gained by telling. It must be learned by doing.

Traditionally, wisdom has been the domain of philosophers, not scientists. But science is trying its best to catch up. A team of researchers led by Dr. Dilip Jeste of the University of California, San Diego, took a stab at generating a definition of wisdom. The result? Here you go: Wisdom is, among other things, a uniquely human form of advanced cognitive and emotional development that is experience-driven and can be learned. 

The take home? Wisdom can’t be gained by telling. It must be learned by doing. 

In a subsequent study, Dr. Jeste investigated how wisdom serves us—what can wise elders do that the rest of us can’t? 

To find the answer, the research team surveyed almost 1,000 participants ranging in age from 51 to 99 and found that an effective buffer against losses, crises, and other hardships was the ability and willingness to look at life from different perspectives. 

Wise elders were able to put both the good and the bad in perspective and trust that each would inevitably change, a mindset that can’t be gained from internet gurus, experts, or even podcast hosts. Indeed, the equanimity of wisdom can only be gained through a lifetime of experiences.

So there you have it: a scientific peek under the hood of three of our most common truisms. 

And now, the promised big announcement, which is bittersweet. At the end of July, I’ll be stepping back from the show to embark on some new adventures. But fear not! I wouldn’t, in the words of Biff Tannen, make like a tree and get outta here. I’m leaving you in good hands and am looking forward to introducing your new Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Jade Wu, in just a few weeks. She is someone I trust and admire, she really knows her stuff, and I know she'll be an awesome and oh-so-savvy host. 

Jade will take the helm starting in August. In the meantime, let’s be sure we keep in touch. Head over to ellenhendriksen.com and sign up for the email list—you’ll get your fix of bad puns, Justin Bieber references, and of course, the evidence-based psychology that you’ve come to expect.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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