If Ignorance Is Bliss, Does Intellect Create Angst?

By Lisa Earle McLeod

Are smart people miserable?

There’s a long-held theory that average folks are happier than the brainiacs with high IQs. The premise – probably concocted by a bunch of geniuses- is that if you’re super smart, you’re more likely to be tormented by things like global warming, the meaning of life and your dysfunctional in-laws than the average Joe or Jane.

The masses in the middle of the bell curve are thrilled just to have a roof over their head and a martini every Friday night, but the Mensa members are wracked with despair because they alone understand life’s complexities. I’ve always kinda liked this theory, secretly relishing in the thought, or hope, that I’m one of the smart ones and thereby excused from being chipper.

I first heard the smart equals miserable idea from a shrink. (Yes, I’ve paid good money to have a trained professional listen to my whining.) Since she was charging 90 bucks an hour, I felt compelled to explain my “problem” within the first five minutes of my initial consultation: “I go to these neighborhood parties, PTA meetings and other such suburbanite functions, but I always feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Everyone else seems so happy, but I’m there with a million thoughts running through my head. Worrying about everything from whether my outfit makes me look fat, to whether I’ll alienate them all if I share my political views, to whether I should be as concerned as they are about how granite counter tops effect resale values.” I summarized my plight stating, “I’ve got a great house, a great husband, great kids, great job, but I don’t feel like I’m as happy as my neighbors.”

The counselor immediately threw back her head with laughter, saying, “Honey, don’t you know that average people are always happier than smart people.” A revelation! There I was beating myself up because I thought something was wrong with me. But then I discovered that I was only unhappy (not truly unhappy, but certainly several quota points behind in the bliss department) because I’d been saddled with the burden of brains.

I clung to this ego-gratifying theory for years. When I discovered that the most popular class at Harvard is a course on how to be happy, I consoled myself knowing that other high achievers shared my pain.

Imagine my horror then when I happened upon a report in “Psychology Today” revealing that, despite the claims of many anguished academics, “intelligence shows virtually no correlation to happiness levels.” Double darn. I could no longer blame my angst on my intellect.

Does this mean the people around me know some secret about happiness that I don’t? Or are they all just faking it too? Or perhaps they discovered Prozac before they got married and had kids. Or maybe I’m the dumb one for expecting happiness to just show up without any effort on my part.

So I did some research – anecdotal, personal and scientific – and I discovered that the secret of happiness is a pretty simple two-part formula: We humans are at our happiest when we’re connected to the people around us and when we know that what we’re doing with our time makes a difference.

We need both purpose and pleasure to sustain lasting joy. Said another way, endless spa days may give you baby soft skin, but unless your pampering is connected to some larger purpose, you’ll eventually tire of being exfoliated. And, while feeding the poor may sound fulfilling, if you can’t fully feel grace while you’re ladling the soup, you won’t find a big serving of fun at the bottom of the pot.

Happiness doesn’t just happen. We have to set up the circumstances that create it.

However, once you’ve uncovered the secret formula, you’d be an idiot to stay miserable.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of “Forget Perfect” and “Finding Grace When You Can’t Even Find Clean Underwear.” Contact her or join her interactive blog at .

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