In positive psychology, happiness is a four-letter word. This relatively new movement within psychology seeks to shift the focus of research and interventions from psychological maladies to human flourishing. When I teach positive psychology, I ask my students what concepts they would like to see included under its umbrella. A few topics—happiness, optimism, resilience—are clear winners time and again. One notable absence: Intelligence. It's something most of us would want for our children, and we often admire it in others, and yet it still seems overlooked.
Why would students overlook the idea that intelligence might be related to high functioning or success? They're not alone; positive psychologists seem to be neatly side-stepping this topic even though it is one of the oldest and best researched in psychology. A search of the leading professional database shows that only two articles have ever been published in the flagship Journal of Positive Psychology with “intelligence” in the title, and both of those were about emotional intelligence.
I think some of the standoffishness is the result of our common attitudes about intelligence, which, like extroversion or left-handedness, is seen as a trait. There is a trend, among experts and lay people, to preference topics in psychology that are malleable. In short: We want to learn about things that we can change and improve.
With all this in mind, I was surprised to see one recent publication on intelligence—a piece of research that wasn’t just focused on how people are smart or how they get that way but, instead, took aim at a positive psychology pillar: happiness. The author of the study sought to discover whether intelligence is associated with happiness—not just overall levels of happiness but overall stability of happiness.
Here’s how the researcher conducted his study and here’s what he found:
First, he used a sample of almost 10,000 British people for whom he had childhood IQ scores—and happiness assessments for from ages 33, 42, 47, and 51. He also had data on their personality, income, job satisfaction, and marital status, so he could control for all of these factors and just examine at the pure relationship between intelligence and happiness stability.
It turns out that IQ—even assessed in childhood—does predict the emotional ups and downs a person will have over the course of her life. People who were below average in intelligence experienced significantly more variability in their life satisfaction than did those who were above average. Importantly, this was not due to differences in education, income, or job, although it was, in part, due to differences in health.
Here’s where I think this research gets interesting: When this basic research result interacts with you, the person reading this.
There may be a tendency to say “So what?” or perhaps something about the finding just rubs you the wrong way, regardless of the relative merits of the methodology. If you find that you have an aversive reaction to this, I would encourage you to reflect on your own basic attitudes about intelligence.
Perhaps intelligence, to the extent that it is a stable trait, feels somehow undemocratic or unfair. Even so, the way that people learn, process, remember, recall, and solve problems is a worthy topic of study. And if we view it as a skill, then it might not be so surprising that it has some association with happiness.