The Critical Thinker(tm)

Happiness And Intelligence: Rare Combination?


Ernest Hemingway had an interesting statement:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

This was quoted in an interesting article that described an inverse relationship between intellect and happiness. Accordingly to the article, the culprit is largely education:

Western society is not set up to nurture intelligent children and adults, the way it dotes over athletes and sports figures, especially the outstanding ones. While we have the odd notable personality such as Albert Einstein, we also have many extremely intelligent people working in occupations that are considered among the lowliest, as may be attested by a review of the membership lists of Mensa (the club for the top two percent on intelligence scales).

Education systems in countries whose primary interest is in wealth accumulation encourage heroes in movies, war and sports, but not in intellectual development. Super intelligent people manage, but few reach the top of the business or social ladder.

Although it’s definitely a debatable assertion, it’s nonetheless an interesting and controversial idea. What I gather is that the “happiness” the article harps on is grounded on moral values or prioritization that is assigned by society which is implemented and disseminated by the educational system. What society “values” highly: wealth, sports, etc.–are what defines “happiness” or success.

However, is intelligence necessarily anti-thetical to these values? I think there’s an implicit error here in that the article seems to differentiate or dichotomize between reason (intelligence) and emotion (happiness) when there isn’t necessarily a gap between the two. This is very apparent in thus further excerpt:

Children develop along four streams: intellectual, physical, emotional (psychological) and social. In classrooms, the smartest kids tend to be left out of more activities by other children than they are included in. They are “odd,” they are the geeks, they are social outsiders. In other words, they do not develop socially as well as they may develop intellectually or even physically where opportunities may exist for more progress.

Arguably these four “streams” are really just two: mental and physical. And these two streams are really just one: since the brain is a physical organ, and the mental stream encompasses intellect, emotion, and sociology. However by dividing a person into body and mind and the mental into further compartments, on the one hand it may give insight into human motivations, but on the other hand it may also be an excellent excuse for contradictory behavior.

Consider the following statements:

Although these statements imply varying motivations: all these motivations take place in the mind, and are all still the province of reason/rationality. The contradictions and conflicts implied in these statements all exist in the mind.

The heart doesn’t make decisions–it simply pumps blood. It’s the brain that chooses the emotional route instead of the logical one. And arguably, in this case, the emotional route becomes the logical one for the person who chooses it. Society doesn’t choose for an individual, it’s the individual who values society that chooses to follow soceity’s dictates. The social need is still in the mind. Right or moral path vs. emotion is another version of heart vs. brain. In this case by choosing the right path–you are in effect putting morality as part of your logic or reasoning. What was really in conflict are the choices of what morality to value, not a choice between morality and emotion.

So back to happiness–which is an emotion, which is part of the mind. A happy person isn’t happy because he values certain things (e.g. wealth or the body) above intellect. In reality it is his intellect that produces the emotion–his intelligence that values those things. A sad person isn’t unhappy because he chooses intellect above all things–but perhaps those things his intelligence values are lacking in his life.

Maybe the proper question is not a dichotomy between the mind and happiness–but what kind of happiness the mind is looking for.

Finally–this doesn’t touch yet on that other controversial dichotomy: that of the body (which includes the brain and the mind), and the spirit/soul.