Hit & Run

Smarter People Are Happier People

New study contradicts earlier findings of no correlation between intelligence and happiness

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Ignorance (a low functioning intellect) may not be bliss, but neither is being really smart. Or at least that is what a lot of social pychological research has supposedly shown. For example, a 2012 article in the International Journal of Happiness and Development analyzed 23 studies and found no correlation between IQ and individual happiness. That article suggested, "It is commonly assumed that smart people cope better with life and will therefore be happier, especially in a modern meritocratic society." On the other hand, the researchers pointed to folk wisdom reflected in popular sayings, such as "From ignorance our comfort flows, only the wretched are the wise," and "In much wisdom is much vexation."

Now a new study in the journal Intelligence calls this conclusion into question by looking at verbal intelligence and reported happiness among Americans on the General Social Survey from 1972-2012. Verbal intelligence was measured using a wordsum vocabulary test. So what did they find? From the study:

[U]sing data from the General Social Study (GSS) from 1972-2012, we show that verbal IQ, which we proxy with a vocabulary test from the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), is significantly correlated with higher levels of happiness for a large representative sample of Americans. This association is small, but positive and significant even after controlling for a large number of socio-economic characteristics and family background variables including father and mother's education and family income.

In addition, the researchers treat intelligence as a positional good that enhances a person's social status. So how does a person's intelligence relative to that of his peers affect his happiness? They report …

… we find evidence for a strong positional effect of verbal intelligence on happiness—within their reference group, people who have relative higher verbal intelligence are happier than their less intelligent counterparts. Our estimations predict that more than 40 percent of the most verbally intelligent people in a reference group based on age, gender and geographical location, will report themselves in the highest happiness category "very happy" compared to only 24 percent of those at the bottom of the IQ distribution, holding socio-economic background constant.

In other words, being smarter than those around you will likely contribute to your happiness. Or perhaps to your smugness. In any case, a confession: Before delving into this research literature it would never have occurred to me that smarter people might not in general be happier people. Fortunately, the new study confirms what I already believed.