Smarter people are happier, says new analysis involving 80,000 participants, but only a bit

By Christian Jarrett

“happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know” Ernest Hemingway

A lot of us would like to be smarter and happier, but does one lead to the other? Folk wisdom suggests not: old sayings tell us that “ignorance is bliss” and that “only a fool can be happy”. What does the psychology literature say? A new meta-analysis in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour has combined the results from dozens of previous studies involving many tens of thousands of participants and, contrary to the received wisdom, it concludes that higher intelligence actually does correlate with greater happiness (or “life satisfaction”) and job satisfaction, but only weakly.

Erik Gonzalez-Mulé at Indiana University and his colleagues sifted the literature, identifying relevant papers, published and unpublished, going back to 1980. Combining the results from 33 papers involving nearly 50,000 participants, they found that intelligence (or what they called “general mental ability”) had a weak but statistically non-significant positive correlation with life satisfaction, and a modest, statistically significant positive correlation with job satisfaction.

They found further evidence for the apparent benefits of higher intelligence for life satisfaction by factoring in the influence of “job complexity” (greater complexity meaning a job with more variety, skill demands and autonomy) and job income, two factors that are themselves correlated with greater happiness. This showed that higher intelligence has indirect links with greater happiness because more intelligent people tend to earn more, but especially because they tend to have more complex jobs, which presumably are more rewarding.

According to 38 studies involving nearly 30,000 participants, higher intelligence also had indirect links with job satisfaction by virtue of the fact that it correlated with job complexity and income. But this is psychology, so of course there’s a twist that somewhat supports the folk wisdom about intelligent people rarely being happy. When the researchers held job complexity and income constant in their analysis, they found that higher intelligence actually correlated with less job satisfaction. Put differently, if you imagine a range of people at a given level of job complexity and income, those with higher intelligence will tend to be less happy with their jobs. This makes intuitive sense if you consider that smarter people will be more likely than others to experience boredom and frustration at jobs that are not challenging enough.

The great strength of meta-analyses like this one is in the huge amounts of data that they can draw on. But the new study also has some obvious limitations: some of the data is decades-old and may not be relevant to today’s world. Also, this is cross-sectional data which can’t convincingly address whether intelligence is causing changes in life and job satisfaction, nor how such processes may unfold over time.

Are smarter people happier? Meta-analyses of the relationships between general mental ability and job and life satisfaction

Image by Orren Jack Turner, via Wikipedia

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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