Am I Intelligent Enough to be Unhappy?

A brief pondering on someone else’s conversation about a book.

Around the dinner table, filled with empty wine bottles and finished plates of pot-luck meals, my friends and I often find ourselves asking each other if what we have is enough. We’re all what I would identify as intelligent individuals. We all have formal secondary education and a few even have post-graduate degrees. We have families, homes, romantic relationships, as well as the headaches and benefits contained therein. For the most part, we would all identify ourselves as “happy”. Still, we question whether or not we’ve “made it”.

Enter a recent article I read in The Atlantic, in which Joe Pinsker interviewed Raj Raghunathan about his book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? In his interview, Pinsker delves into the perplexing relationship between intelligence and happiness. The article, titled Why So Many Smart People Aren’t Happyis an interesting dialogue that asks questions about several things, including the shift from corporate dominance to corporate responsibility. It sparks discussion topics with comments like:

“There are expectations that if you achieve some given thing, you’re going to be happy. But it turns out that’s not true.”

I personally believe this is something younger generations are beginning to understand more and more. I would even argue that it was a lesson bestowed upon me by my parents. “Do what makes you happy,” my father would say. The problem with that, as the interview investigates, is the old perceived notion that wealth represents happiness. We graduate from colleges and universities believing that we will enter the world earning high salaries and then we will have “arrived”.

Pinsker: “What do you think it is about the messages people receive about what it takes to be successful in business that runs counter to this mindset?”

Raghunathan: “In the big picture, the business world’s messages are a little jumbled. In business schools, I see that there’s a huge push towards corporate social responsibility and finding a passion, but at the same time, if you look at the kinds of people who get invited to come give keynote addresses, or what it is that we focus on to improve our Businessweek rankings, it’s things that are extrinsic. We invite people who made a million bucks, and we look at incoming MBA students and their outgoing salaries.”

This of course signals that education still has not quite caught up with the shifting trend of balancing work and life goals. We’re instructed to be determined, to have drive, but not to sacrifice our happiness. In the same vein, we’re led to believe our happiness is dependent on achieving success by being driven.

To be fair, society isn’t doing the process any favors. We’re bombarded with images of CEOs wearing tennis shoes and jeans while earning millions of dollars each year. We’re told it’s possible, but we’re also told it requires some level of technological genius. It causes us all to adopt a minor form of self-deprecation: I’m not that smart. Which, in turn, leaves us feeling unaccomplished.

At some point we have to stop and ask ourselves, Whom are we trying to please? Are we striving for the unicorn of success to make ourselves happy? Are we simply doing what society instructs? Are we looking for a nod of approval from our parents? If we never make it to billionaire status, are we just settling for mediocrity?

Most, I assume, would argue they strive to be successful so they can support themselves, their families, and make a better life for their children (if they have them). These were the tenants instilled in me during my childhood. I was never taught that I needed to live in a four-story mansion with acres of land, filled with running horses. I was raised with a social mindset. Raghunathan identifies this as the abundance-oriented approach, “…that there’s room for everybody to grow.”

The other approach is that of competition. Or, “…a kind of scarcity-minded approach, that my win is going to come at somebody else’s loss, which makes you engage in social comparisons.” This approach was rampant in high school, and even more so in college. I watched friends completely lose it in high school in order to achieve a 4.0. That GPA was supposed to get them scholarships for college. It also seemed to grant a few the ability to step back and observe, “I’m better than you.”


From that perspective, they were successful. From my perspective, their success was false. What I mean to say is that their accomplishment was only important to them. That letter grade on a piece of paper was no more valuable to me than the last crumb from an Oreo cookie. I neither felt happy for them, or inferior, despite the fact societal norms dictate that I should. And I certainly have never been willing to fight over the last crumb.

What’s the point of fighting over a crumb, when we can learn how to bake a whole new batch of cookies? That fevered drive to get the A on the piece of paper can leave one empty of the appreciation for the knowledge itself. One can get lost in the weeds of systemically measuring their success.

“There are many problems with that,” Raghunathan explains in the interview.

“But one big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? What are the yardsticks for being the best professor? Is it about research, teaching? …it gets very difficult to judge, because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.”

My apparent lack of interest in being the best at anything seems to be my saving grace. Says Raghunathan, “…you actually perform better if you don’t put yourself under the scarcity mindset, if you don’t worry about the outcomes and enjoy the process of doing something, rather than the goal.” (I still didn’t get the A.)

Raghunathan argues the unhappiness he associates with intelligence is based on knowing that after you climb over one mountain, there will only be another mountain to summit. His approach refers to climbing the corporate ladder. He says we adapt to the yard-sticks of awards received and salaries earned. Choosing to gravitate toward goals that are well defined, but not necessarily relevant. This process creates a need for more promotions, higher salaries. And because that constant capitalistic growth is not always attainable, it causes us to be dissatisfied with our status.

My take on this went even further. Certainly I can understand why intelligence, or rather education in general, can lead to some level of unhappiness. It’s difficult to be “happy”, especially from an abundance-oriented approach, knowing there is always someone less fortunate than you. This isn’t a focus in the scarcity model.

Anyone with a conscience, and a cell phone, should carry a little unhappiness knowing the destruction caused to the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern parts of China and soon the Halls Creek region of western Australia in order to obtain the materials that allow a cell phone to work in the first place. (Don’t believe me? Start your research here.) Talk about scarcity driven by economics!

Because we’re a capitalist society, and we’ve encouraged (or imposed) that economic model on the rest of the world, we’re dependent on constant growth. Thanks to the need for growth we have outrageous marketing programs. And thanks to that, we have the obsession of always needing (wanting) the next big thing.

So, how are both approaches found within a society that places so much value on constant need of instant gratification? It seems to be related to nature versus nurture.

“Most of us are the products of people who survived in what was for a very, very long time, in our evolution as a species, a scarcity-oriented universe. Food was scarce, resources were scarce, fertile land was scarce, and so on. So we do have a very hard-wired tendency to be scarcity-oriented. But I think what has happened over time is we don’t have to literally fight for our survival every day. I think that as intelligent beings we need to recognize that some of the vestiges of our evolutionary tendencies might be holding us back.”

When Pinsker asks Raghunathan if his observations indicate he does not believe capitalism is an appropriate incubator for the abundance-oriented mindset, Raghunathan responded:

“Ultimately, you can’t force people to adopt an abundance mindset. They’re going to have to select it themselves, through self-exploration and soul-searching, and looking at the science. Then, some people consciously arrive at a more socialistic way of living, by choice.”

It always seems to circle back around, doesn’t it? Beauty, indeed happiness, is in the eye of the beholder. One can achieve great things to the benefit of humanity, despite being focused on achievement alone. The same accomplishments can be achieved with a selfless attitude. Neither approach is right or wrong. Raghunathan is not shy about advocating for the abundance mindset, though.

“When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, …rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.”

Admittedly, and somewhat ashamedly, I have not read Raghunathan’s book yet. I fully intend to, though, as this is a topic I ponder quite often. In fact, the premise of Raj’s book reminds me of another that I read last year called Beyond the Pig and the Ape. It was written by Krishna Pendyala, a friend of mine. Maybe after I read Raj’s book, I’ll have more to say about how the two philosophies intertwine. It will certainly be on the agenda for our next dinner party.



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