September 18, 2019

Does Being Smart Make Life Meaningful?

“I’ve been wondering lately about the link between intelligence and meaning. People with high intelligence tend to adopt a critical attitude towards the world, and avoid relying on positive illusions. While these skills gain you accolades in school, are they really valued in today’s world? Anecdotally, I have spoken with a lot of extremely bright people who are feeling a profound lack of meaning in this current climate of divisiveness and lack of nuanced, integrative thinking in public discourse.

What does the science say about this? Unfortunately, there just isn’t much systematic work on this topic, as most of the research on intellectual giftedness is conducted on children. When intelligence is studied among adults, the emphasis tends to be on markers of achievement, such as occupational success or publicly recognized accomplishments. So the best I can do in this article is attempt to draw out some general patterns based on the small bits of evidence that exist.

In this recent article for my column, I reported on a recent study that reported a positive correlation between IQ and well-being among the general population. However, like most things in life, the devil is in the details. The authors of the study graciously provided me with further data showing that if you split up well-being into different factors, the relationship between IQ and “Satisfaction with Circumstances and Relationships” was over three times higher than the correlation between IQ and “Sense of Direction and Fulfillment.””

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