Most thoughtful people would agree that it is in times like these—characterized by a heightened sense of uncertainty, mistrust, and division—that we most need wisdom to guide us and those in positions of power. Most of us would also intuitively agree that wisdom is essential to enhancing life, both in terms of recognizing what it means to lead an enhanced life, as well as in terms of how to achieve it for ourselves and for others. However, while we might have a general sense of what wisdom entails, it remains a complex and multi-faceted construct. Its essential nature has been discussed and debated for millennia and, more recently, has become a focus for psychology researchers, interested in identifying its characteristics so that they can measure, and ultimately, promote it. That is my current research focus as well. However, I am focusing specifically on our consumption oriented behaviors, where wisdom may help lead us towards less wasteful and more fulfilling lifestyles that better promote the enhancement of life. So what, then, is wisdom?
From a psychological perspective, much has been learned over the last few decades about wisdom—its defining characteristics and, increasingly, its antecedents and consequences. Even so, I’ve come to believe that one of the most helpful ideas about wisdom is Aristotle’s distinction between phronesis, or practical wisdom, and sophia, or philosophical wisdom. Phronesis, which deals with questions about everyday life, is especially relevant in the context of consumer behavior, and widely evident in the experiences and stories I have gathered by interviewing wise individuals (who were nominated by their peers) about their consumption practices. Characteristics of practical consumer wisdom include actively learning lessons from past mistakes, using conscious intentions in relation to recognizing goals and manifesting values, being aware of and managing emotions, and maintaining an openness to improved or alternative consumption practices that have the potential to provide greater long-term value. I think this is the sort of wisdom that we typically think about—wisdom that helps us navigate our busy lives and make decisions that best fit our resources and contexts. Sophia, on the other hand, is relatively more elusive and challenging to study. However, its relative anonymity and subtlety may on their own be good reasons to focus more on trying to understanding its nature and relevance.
Trowbridge (2011) argues that sophia is characterized to a significant degree by an ‘intuitive knowing’ of reality, and that it is through this intuitive knowing of reality that we become aware of fundamental truths, such as the ‘self-transcendent unity of being.’ While Trowbridge’s work is based on a review of psychology research on wisdom in general, it certainly resonates with my own research on consumer behavior. Intuition is a complex concept and has many sources; but in the case of consumer behavior, it is informed in part by reflecting on one’s behaviors and the consequences of these behaviors. As a result, what emerges—beyond an improved capacity for sound everyday decision making (practical wisdom)—is a more holistic perspective which assumes the interrelatedness and interdependence of all things or, to put it another way, the dissolution of perceived boundaries. This holistic perspective is underscored in the foremost philosophic and religious traditions of the West and the East, yet it is seldom considered within traditionally more pragmatic domains, such as consumer behavior. So, how might this more holistic type of wisdom manifest in consumer behavior, and what does this have to do with enhancing life?
One of the most obvious ways in which a perspective of interdependence influences consumer behavior is that it dissolves the perceived boundaries between the consumer, as ‘self,’ and ‘others,’ which includes other people as well as the natural environment. This perspective engenders an ethic of caring, which promotes support for a wide variety of social and environmental causes: from buying products that promote fair labor to avoiding toxic cleaning supplies and animal-based proteins. This manifestation of sophic wisdom is fairly obvious, however. It is vitally important and we need more of it, for sure, but it alone is neither new nor sufficient.
Apparent for many of the individual consumers that I have been studying is the dissolution of another important boundary—an internally perceived boundary between their spiritual and consumer lives. For these individuals, there is little distinction between these domains of their lives. No behavior is viewed exclusively as a ‘spiritual behavior’ or a ‘consumer behavior.’ Indeed, seeing them as distinct would make it possible to believe one is virtuous despite complacent—or even egregious— consumption practices. Instead, wise consumers approach consumption as a daily manifestation and partial reflection of their spiritual beliefs. For them, consumption is not taken for granted nor depended upon for fulfillment, but neither is it viewed as necessarily negative or destructive. Instead, it is approached with intention as a domain of behavior with the potential for both good and harm—and with the opportunity to manifest deeply held beliefs and values by what is consumed, and what is not. These themes emerged from many of my interviews, addressing choices as common as buying clothing and groceries, to more substantial purchases such as buying a car or a house.
What began for me as a quest to identify the characteristics of wise consumption—still a focus of my research—has in some ways shifted towards an exploration of a simple theme and a fundamental question: how can the idea of dissolution of boundaries (a characteristic of sophic wisdom) help us understand and promote better consumption behaviors? Further, how can the dissolution of boundaries enhance life: for the individual, for society, and for the natural environment? And, finally, what are the forces that encourage or discourage a dissolution of perceived boundaries? I still have much to learn as I analyze the transcripts from my interviews of wise consumers. But, I do so with a new perspective, ironically inspired by a time in which others are speaking of building walls. Which, as it turns out, might not be so wise.
Read a Q&A with Michael Luchs here.