Why Intelligent People Like to Read About Intelligent People being Miserable
“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
Isn’t that Hemingway quote just brilliant? Don’t we all love reading something like that, feeling that flash of recognition when we discover that such a noble reason is hiding behind the difficulties we face in our daily lives?
I came upon this article on the miseries of highly intelligent people yesterday (which is already at impressive 19k claps after a week), and naturally, vaguely thinking of myself as intelligent and unhappy, I clicked.
It was an instantly gratifying experience: satisfaction washed over me when I was welcomed by a quote from the one and only Albert Einstein. Oh yes, I thought, finally someone who understands my troubles, the difficulties of being one of the most brilliant people in the history of our species!
Someone who I could have been there for had I only been born a century ago. Someone who would have (I assume) understood the “huge handicaps” (actual quote) I have to deal with every day: not fitting in with my friends because I did not have to study as much in school, getting better grades, suffering from being equipped with mental capacities that allowed me to find a job that is constantly interesting, pays well and that I am passionate about, bearing the troubles of being, through my work, part of a socio-economic class strongly predictive of health and well-being.
The list of handicaps is endless. Us highly intelligent people all know the struggle.
But are intelligent people really that unhappy?
As you might have guessed, I’m not one hundred percent convinced. But I also don’t want to spend the rest of this article cynically ranting, because I think the question is in itself interesting, and the interest in it is telling.
There can be a certain self-congratulatory quality about being unhappy. Even better when we have found an easy excuse for it. The sometimes mad and unstable genius like that of great artists and thinkers like van Gogh, Hemingway, Nietzsche, Schuhmann, etc. is romanticized and, to a degree, perverted: indulging in being stressed, lonely and tormented by life has become a vehicle for virtue-signaling our own drive, intelligence and profoundness. I think this can be a dangerous and unnecessary tendency because it makes us cultivate a melodramatic fatalism very counterproductive for actually working on and improving the quality of our lives.
And in a different sense, all the bad press being intelligent is getting is really unfounded in facts. Let’s take a look at what science has to say about the issue.
Intelligence is correlated with happiness
This much is seems to be true. As this study suggests, Happiness is significantly associated with IQ.
Only in the sense that people with high IQ tend to be happier. Now you can argue about the value of IQ, and there are definitely problems with it (read Richard Haier’s The Neuroscience of Intelligence for a great overview), but there are many studies showing that it is relatively simple to evaluate and a surprisingly good predictor for several measures of success in life (again you can argue about what this truly means, but it is not completely pulled out of the air).
Martin Seligman, who is credited as founding the field of happiness research, investigated predictors of happiness in the workplace (see here for an overview). Surprise, surprise: those jobs that offer more creative freedom, provide a stronger connection between the work and the outcomes of the work, have weaker hierarchies, etc. tend to be judged as more satisfying, even if the workload in hours is higher. It goes without saying that many of those jobs are executed by more intelligent people.
The field of cognitive epidemiology further investigates the link between intelligence and health. The findings are pretty clear: intelligent people have a higher chance of living a longer life, decreased risk of coronary heart disease, obesity, and stroke. A meta-study showed that a decrease in IQ score of 15 points increases the mortality rate by 32 percent. This just to give a few examples.
Of course there are edge cases. Of course there are intelligent people that suffer. Of course there are problems associated with being intelligent. With it can come a certain sense of isolation, as with everything that is far away from the population average. There might be a propensity for mental health problems and overexcitability, as new research suggests. But the popular notion of mental illness like bipolar disorder being connected to high intelligence is just now being properly investigated, and the relationship is far from as clear as anecdotal evidence might suggest.
From my daily experience working in a mental health clinic, I can assure that we don’t only have misunderstood geniuses running around here. This study, for example, indicates that risk for bipolar disorder actually decreases with intelligence, but that there might be a positive correlation with it and people at the very high end of the spectrum of intelligence (which is only a very small portion of the population).
And so, as with everything, it’s easy to be black and white about it, but there are more than enough reasons to say that intelligent people are far away from always being miserable, and their quality of life on average even tends to be better compared to less intelligent people. Life can always be hard. But I think it’s unhealthy to blindly and somewhat arrogantly blame it on something that is to a large extent a blessing, especially in our modern world.
Justifying unhappiness vs. learning to be happy
If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t happy? How come you haven’t figured that out? That’s my challenge to all the people who think they’re so smart and so capable. If you’re so smart and capable, why can’t you change this?
Intelligence is a measure that is trying to capture the problem-solving skills of a person across a wide range of tasks. Does not trying to lead a happy life also include solving problems across a wide range of tasks? In this very stimulating podcast, Naval Ravikant dares to ask the provocative question: Why don’t unhappy intelligent people use their intelligence to solve the problem of their own unhappiness?
People have been thinking about how to be happy for thousands of years, and some wisdom has definitely emerged on how to live a fulfilled existence. There are skills to be learned that will most definitely improve your quality of life, and I think intelligent people actually have an advantage in learning them, as with learning many other things.
So instead of congratulating yourself for your own unhappiness and the burden of your gifts, why not take some time to read into the emerging science on how to live a happy life (read The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt for a good overview). Or go back farther in history: study the Stoics, meditate, eat well, exercise, do yoga, learn how to make friends, socialize more: there are a lot of smart people out there, and let’s face it, the odds that you are so brilliant that no one understands you are pretty small.
The list of things to do is endless, and if you’re really that smart and unhappy, chances are good that there is something you can do about it.