Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Smart, Successful, and Yet Not Happy?

Why aren't the smart-and-the-successful as happy as they could—or should—be?

Interested in these topics? Go here to my new (and free!) online course on happiness

Of all the intriguing questions that one could ask (Why is perfume called eau de cologne and not wasser de cologne? Why is ice-cream more popular in colder countries than in hotter ones?) the one that has always captivated me the most is: Why aren’t the smart-and-successful—those with a university degree and earning above $75,000 a year—as happy as they could be? The fact that a university degree and a good life do not necessarily translate into happiness is a well-known fact. Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her excellent books, The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness, suggests that “life circumstances” (such as education levels, marital status, wealth, etc.) contribute only about 10% to one’s happiness, with the rest coming from one’s genetic make-up (about 50%) and one’s values, attitudes and habits (about 40%).

So, why aren’t the smart-and-successful as happy as they could—or should—be?

A proper answer to this question can take up quite a lot of space, which is why I am writing a whole book on the topic and also why I my online (and free!) course on happiness will last all of six weeks. However, it is possible to provide a short version of the answer to the question, which is what I am going to do in this article.

To get to the answer, it will be important to first understand the things that we, as human beings, absolutely need in order to be happy. The first thing we need, is that our basic necessities are met: food, clothing, shelter, etc. As you can easily imagine, if basic necessities are not met, we can’t be happy. For the smart-and-successful, fulfillment of basic necessities isn’t a problem; so, I won’t comment on this requirement for happiness any more.

The second thing we need is a sense of connection—or, as some psychologists refer to it, a sense of belongingness. That is, we need to feel that we enjoy intimacy with at least one other person. How important is belongingness for happiness? One study examined the top 10% of the happiest people and found that every one of them had at least one intimate relationship. So, if you want to belong to the happiest group, belongingness is not a luxury: it’s a necessity. Echoing these findings, other studies have shown that the opposite of belongingness—loneliness—is one of the biggest determinants of both physical ailments (like obesity and high blood pressure) and psychological ones (like depression and insomnia).

The third thing we need is a perception that we are efficacious beings—or what some researchers call a need for “mastery.” That is, we need to feel that we are really good at something (like writing, running, being altruistic etc.).

The fourth and final thing we need to feel happy is a sense of autonomy—the feeling that we aren’t under someone else’s control. This is why we abhor situations in which we don’t have the freedom to act like we would like to, and also why we exhibit something known as psychological reactance: the tendency to do the opposite of what we are told to. The desire for autonomy—like that for belongingness and mastery—seems hardwired in us, which is why even two year-olds exhibit psychological reactance.

Everyone seems to realize the importance of all three needs—the need for belongingness, mastery, and autonomy—for happiness, and almost all of our actions can be explained as an attempt to fulfill one or more of these needs. But, it’s not just the fulfillment of these needs that determines our happiness; what also determines it is how we go about trying to fulfill them.

In brief, there are two routes to fulfilling each of the needs, and it turns out that one of these routes is more conducive to enhancing happiness than the other. Belongingness can be pursued either through the need to be loved or through the need to love. Likewise, mastery can be pursued either through the need for superiority or through the pursuit of passion (on intrinsic interests). And finally, autonomy can be sought either through the need for external control (by seeking control over others or over outcomes) or through internal control (by seeking to regulate one’s own reactions to others and to outcomes).

Although the need to be loved, the need for superiority, and the need for external control can enhance happiness levels in the short-run, they are likely to lower it in the long-run. By contrast, the need to love, pursuing passion, and the need for internal control have much better potential to enhance not just short-term happiness, but also long-term happiness. Further, they also have the potential to enhance the happiness of others around us.

This brief overview is sufficient to gain some insights into why the smart-and-the-successful are not as happy as they could—or should—be. Although the smart-and-the-successful are in a better position to have all of the needs for happiness fulfilled, they tend to make the same mistake that the rest of us do in how they go about pursing these needs. They, like the rest of us, tend to pursue belongingness, mastery, and autonomy through the need to be loved, the need for superiority, and the need for external control, rather than through the need to love, pursuit of passion and the need for internal control. This is why the smart-and-the-successful are no more than 10% happier than the rest of us.

Why do the need to be loved, pursuit of superiority and the need for external control lower happiness levels in the long-run? And what impact does their pursuit have on success (as opposed to happiness)?

Those are the questions to which I will turn in the next few articles.

To see the next article in this sequence, go here.

Interested in these topics? Go here for my new (and free!) online course on happiness

More from Raj Raghunathan Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today