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Are smarter people really miserable? No, the data says otherwise.

In a world awash in “fake news” and even “fake” news about “fake” news there are articles that smell fake and articles that absolutely reek of ‘fake’. The smell test on articles that claim ‘smart’, or ‘highly intelligent’ people are less happy than other people is really stinking up the whole internet right now.

Gears are a big part of IQ tests.

You, of course, have seen that there is an absolutely pervasive online myth and a veritable cult of articles which are largely shared on social media that make negative claims about the correlation of happiness and intelligence (and/or IQ). The claims are that, contrary to what you may think, the more intelligent you are, or the more you think, the more unhappy you are going to be. This “lay theory” is easily debunked, but I am interested more in why this particular story gains traction as it seems almost as if there is a large-scale Native Advertising campaign designed for this topic.

The claims go along the lines of, (this is a very small random sample of recent articles with links from a couple of Google searches):

  1. Why so Many Smart People are not Happy.
  2. Why smart people are better off with fewer friends.
  3. The surprising downsides of being clever.
  4. 6 reasons why intelligent people fail to be happy.
  5. 5 reasons why smart people are not as happy as they should be.
  6. Evolution made smart people long to be loners.
  7. Are smart people miserable?

And on and on, the list is seemingly endless with hundreds of articles and millions of shares on social media with only a couple articles that refute this claim. Smarter people are happier people is one of the few refutations I can find and it does not mention that there is a veritable river of opposing view.

Reading these article you will find scant evidence to support the claims they appear to be making, and after reading about 100 of them I have come to the conclusion that any studies mentioned are either misrepresented, misread, cherry-picked or absolutely slanted.

You cannot discuss one datapoint of a segment of society without discussing that same datapoint about the entirety of society. From this same data you can easily come up with other titles like “Smart women are unhappy” from that same group of data, or “Smart Prius owners are unhappy”. Perhaps this is wrong and maybe it is not ‘smart’ people who are unhappy, it is that “people” are unhappy who are in the group we looked at. Or, lets face it, ‘Americans’ are unhappy, which is actually more interesting, but maybe not as self-gratifying for those who feel lesser than some of their peers.

There is actual ‘real’ data to prove that citizen of the U.S. are unhappier recently as well:

  1. The U.S. Rating on the world happiness Report is lower that it should be (should?).
  2. American happiness at an all time low.
  3. Only one in three Americans are happy.
“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” ― Albert Einstein

So, if these articles claiming that ‘smart’ people are unhappy are easily disproved, wrong and generally bad journalism, bad science and bad to share because of the whole ‘fake-news’ thing — then why are people so interested in both writing and sharing them?

Perhaps the Lake Wobegon Effect is at play here or there is a touch of the Illusory superiority effect come into play with those who believe that it ‘feels’ right that intelligent people should somehow be unhappy and then feel justified in thinking this as a form of psychic revenge for perceived self-weakness and self-worth.

Want to see this in action? You can see a ton of this behavior on a Quora Question about if intelligent people are unhappy, most of the responders say “Yes”. Quora is a community of people who want to feel they are ‘smart’ and able to answer questions for others and they each say ‘yes’ and come up with their own lay theories with zero articles or data to back up their ideas, which are obviously fantasizing about ‘what smart people’ feel and think.

Luckily one answer summarizes with actual real data.

In “Correlates of Avowed Happiness” by Warner Wilson (1967):

The data show quite definitely that

in spite of numerous lay theories to the contrary, happiness and IQ are not related to an appreciable degree

, at least in the student populations studied. The most extensive studies found no relationship (Hartmann, 1934; Watson, 1930; Wilson, 1960). Fellows (1956) reported that the intelligent are less happy; Jasper (1930) and Washburne (1941) reported just the opposite. Several studies (Beckham, 1929; Bradburn & Caplovitz, 1965; Gurin et al., 1960; Inkeles, 1960; Wessman, 1956) showed, however, that those of a lower socioeconomic level avow less happiness. Since relatively low IQ is a characteristic of low economic status, these investigations suggest that intellectual capability may be important when it is low enough to prevent economic success. Those with high IQ, in any case, do not seem to suffer from any special mental distress.

(p. 304) [1]

More recently, Eysenck (1990, p. 33) suggested that “Despite the fact that it definitely seems preferable to be clever rather than dull, there is very little evidence that intelligence is related in any way to happiness.” [2]

Looking at trait emotional intelligence, however, tells a different story. Furnham and Petrides (2003) studied cognitive ability, personality (Big 5) factors, and emotional intelligence in relation to happiness. Individuals with high emotional intelligence reported greater happiness. [4]

So, what are we to take away from this. Is this a case of the less intelligent (and therefore unhappy) trying to bring the more intelligent down a notch?

It almost seems like it is. (Maybe they are just unhappy when you see them because they are around you?)

Clearly, we can see that the data suggest that intelligent people are not running around miserable. In fact, we don’t really see any kind of link between unhappiness and intelligence, and saying that intelligent people typically ‘should’ make better life choices than their less intelligent brethren, it would track they would be happier and it would seem that the bulk of the studies suggest here suggest that this is indeed the case to at least a minor, but significant degree. The same studies suggest that a lower IQ means low income, poor health and poor mental health which directly correlate with unhappiness.

A specific study by IQ score has the following: individuals with an IQ ranging from 70–99 reported the lowest levels of happiness compared to individuals with an IQ ranging from 120–129. No results were available for individuals with an IQ of 130+ … assuming they didn’t have enough data points or for lack of participation due to control factors.

There are even places where you can download data sets for this information which is from this Freakonomics article which again has comments from people who feel the need to interject their determined ‘observations’ that intelligent people are unhappy.

So, next time you see one of these articles posted on Facebook, shoot it down, it’s stinking the whole place up.

Maybe Hector should have sent his patients back to school?

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