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The Smartest People are Often Unhappy – But They Don’t Have to Be!

5 April 2023

I’ve recently been reading on the supposed inverse correlation of intelligence and happiness. While I don’t believe there is a direct correlation between intelligence and unhappiness (I know plenty of happy smart people, and some people who are less intelligent and still unhappy), there are some indicators that point in that direction.

Ernest Hemingway certainly thought the two were related – in his novel, The Garden of Eden, he has a character say, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

So, there may be some truth in this – but only if we let there be. Remember that Ernest Hemingway ended his own life shortly before his 62nd birthday, and let’s take his viewpoint as his own, not one we absolutely have to borrow for ourselves.

So, why might it be that intelligence tends toward unhappiness? Lots of reasons, it appears.

Maybe it’s the tendency of the highly intelligent to set themselves standards they cannot possible meet.

Perhaps it’s that the most intelligent – or some of them – can see themselves as superior to others, and use their intelligence to point out others’ flaws.

Or is it because they don’t share that intelligence freely?

Intelligence, after all, is surely a resource – like money, like power, like talents and other gifts. And centuries of humans facing life-threatening scarcities of food, fuel, shelter, safety from predators, have hard-wired the species to hoard our resources.

Survival and other instincts also hard-wire humans toward the pursuit of money, position, power. While none of these pursuits is bad, the why governing our individual pursuit of these may make a difference to our happiness, whatever our IQs may be.

Because we no longer live our lives facing saber-toothed tigers. And contrary to one school of thought, life does not have to be a zero-sum game. It can be a win-win game – but for this people have to work together, and share resources.

We all know that doing a good deed for someone, even – or maybe especially – if that person cannot reciprocate, makes us feel good. When we give the half-sandwich leftover from lunch to a homeless person on the corner, when we give or lend a friend money – or a lift, or just an ear – in an emergency, that is happy-making for us. And, on the rare occasion we’ve been able to enlighten a child about a concept they had not understood before, isn’t that a wonderful feeling?

So, perhaps there are ways in which the highly intelligent can use their gift to promote their own happiness:

  • They can use that intelligence toward better understanding of their relationships and community, unraveling more and better ways to be loving and giving to others.
  • They can share the intelligence itself – take on a task for a co-worker who would take three times as long to produce a less-good result, and free up that co-worker to do work s/he truly excels at (the Bible tells us there are many gifts but one spirit, and perhaps the highly intelligent among us would do well to remember that – exceptional intelligence is only one gift among the many out there).

Rather than hoard resources, we should husband them wisely, and use them not only for the benefit of ourselves and our families, but for everyone’s betterment.

It’s no accident that the solutions focus on relationships and interactions between and among people. University of Texas’ Raj Raghunathan wrote the 2016 book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? The work holds that, once an individual’s basic needs (food and water, shelter, clothing, etc.) are met, there are three keys to happiness:

  • Meaningful, rewarding relationships with others,
  • Competence at whatever they focus their energy on, and
  • Freedom to make independent life decisions.

Notice which comes first.

It’s been said that poets were the first psychologists – an old bit of doggerel urges us, when unhappy, to:

“Do something for somebody, quick,
It will banish your cares in a tick.”

Maybe knowing that is wisdom. But the intelligent, and the less so, all have to make the journey to wisdom. It doesn’t come pre-packed in the high IQ box, nor in any other gift we’re born with – it must be learned and earned.

How do you use your gifts to make us all a better – and happier – world to live in?

Please click here to email me directly – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Until next time –



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