Unhappy? It Might Be a Sign of Intelligence

The downside? It could be a sign of primitive (and cynical) thinking inherited from early homo sapiens.

Michael Liccione | May 10, 2016 | 5,881

The downside? It could be a sign of primitive (and cynical) thinking inherited from early homo sapiens.
Unhappy? It Might Be a Sign of Intelligence

We’ve all either heard or posed the question: If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? But a more appropriate question might be, If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?

An article last month in the business section of The Atlantic tackles that question in an interview with Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, a book released in April. 

The three major criteria commonly identified as the primary ingredients to happiness (beyond physical health) are belonging, mastery, and autonomy. Basically, as the Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker writes, this means “having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.”

Raghunathan, professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, is challenging the assumption that mastery, a component many intelligent people have, tends to make people happier. In fact, he says it could do the opposite.  

Why? The difference seems to lie in the way smart people often measure their mastery.

According to Raghunathan, humans in general are prone to measure their work or career by making “social comparisons” with others. They judge themselves not on how much money they make or the awards they win, but on how these things compare to others in their professional and social groups. People prone to thinking this way are less likely to stay happy because there’s always more to be desired.

This is not exactly surprising. What is surprising? The fact that intelligent people apparently are more prone to fall into this thinking trap.



Raghunathan thinks that’s because, for evolutionary reasons, humans inherited a “scarcity mindset.” The term, coined by author Stephen Covey, is rooted in the cynical idea that there’s not enough pie to go around, so it is better to be selfish than generous.  

Since resources are finite and people often assume they need to compete for them, individuals tend to measure their self-worth based on the success of "the competition." 

There is an alternative, of course: being absorbed, like small children, in what one does for its own sake, for the sheer joy of it. But as Raghunathan explains, major institutions—especially businesses—still operate largely with a scarcity mindset. And that’s understandable.

So what’s to be done?

There may not be much individuals can do to reduce the scarcity mindset in business, academia, and other spheres. But on a personal level?

Rajhunathan suggests this:

The one thing that has really really helped me in this regard is a concept that I call ‘the dispassionate pursuit of passion’ in the book, and basically the concept boils down to not tethering your happiness to the achievement of outcomes.”

That seems sound. What do you think? Good advice?


[Image Credit: Pixabay]


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