How Smart People Can Stop Being Miserable

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,” an unnamed character casually remarks in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Garden of Eden. You might say that this is a corollary of the much more famous “Ignorance is bliss.”

The latter recalls phenomena such as the Dunning-Kruger effect—in which people lacking skills and knowledge in a particular area innocently underestimate their own incompetence—and the illusion of explanatory depth, which can prompt autodidacts on social media to excitedly present complex scientific phenomena, thinking they understand them in far greater depth than they really do.

The Hemingway hypothesis, however, is less straightforward. I can think of a lot of unhappy intellectuals, to be sure. But is intelligence per se their problem? Happiness scholars have studied this question, and the answer is—as in so many parts of life—it depends. The gifts you possess can lift you up or pull you down; it all depends on how you use them. Many people see intelligence as a way to get ahead of others. But to get happier, we need to do the opposite.

You might assume that intelligence—whether it be the conventional IQ kind, emotional intelligence, musical talent, or some other dimension along which a person can excel—raises happiness, all else being equal. After all, people with higher cognitive ability should logically have more exciting life opportunities than others. They should also acquire more resources with which to enhance their well-being.

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