Are stupid people happier?

By: Cristen Conger  | 
Ignorance isn't always bliss.
Key Takeaways
  • Happiness is partially determined by genetics, with about half of our capacity for happiness inherited from our parents.
  • Personality traits such as being low-stress, sociable and conscientious are linked to higher happiness levels, suggesting that optimism and strong social connections can help individuals recover more quickly from negative events.
  • Positive psychology suggests that focusing on positive emotions like optimism, gratitude and mindfulness can increase overall happiness, which in turn may enhance creativity, thinking skills and even longevity.

As the old saying goes, ignorance is bliss.

Think, for instance, about the victims of Bernie Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme. You can bet your bankroll that those people were a far sight happier before they received the news that their mountains of money had vanished without a trace. In truth, those folks were never as handsomely rich as they believed, but the perception of wealth probably added a comfortable cushion against life's little annoyances. Certainly, in the realm of personal finances, the truth can sting. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs found that people tend to overestimate, rather than underestimate, their creditworthiness [source: Trejos]. Those who do miscalculate their financial health end up suffering more due to poor money management.


But in both of those scenarios, the problem wasn't so much stupidity as it was a lack of awareness. What you don't know can't hurt you -- that is, until you find out about it. So how about a genuine lack of intelligence? Do smarts come with the added baggage of bad moods? If you know more, are you less able to see the bright side of life?

A 2005 study of intelligence and emotional health conducted at the University of Edinburgh found no correlation between brains and happiness [source: Edelson]. According to the results, greater intelligence acts as a double-edged sword when it comes to happiness. On the one hand, smarter people are better equipped to provide for themselves; on the other, those same people may strive continually to achieve more and be less satisfied with the status quo. At low-income levels, the issue of resource acquisition may make a greater impact on personal happiness, but the effects aren't long-lasting. Just like the fading bliss of new romance, at some point, the happiness honeymoon ends.

Rather than intelligence, the most salient factor contributing to self-reported happiness in the University of Edinburgh study was quality of life. A bed-ridden genius probably won't have the same amount of life satisfaction as someone of average intelligence who can still get around. Yet, since quality of life is comprised of many external dynamics, such as geography, education and socioeconomic background, that leaves an important question lingering. If happiness is an internal emotion, what type of internal, innate qualities contribute to it?


Where Happiness Comes From

About half of people's happiness quotas are genetic.

You could probably come up with a list of things that would make you happy. Maybe it entails a promotion at work, a new car or someone to fall in love with. But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to happiness, about half of the equation for attaining it boils down to biology.

The genes we inherit from our parents help determine certain personality traits. Researchers have found that those genetically derived attributes make up about half of our personal happiness quotients [source: West]. Some people are handed more of a tendency for feeling satisfied with life, while others will naturally yearn for more stimulation. Scientists don't think that there's a single gene responsible for people's happiness; rather, the sum of their parts is what can turn that frown upside down more easily.


To figure out which predisposed personality traits contribute to happiness, psychologists studied nearly 1,000 pairs of twins. The twins' genetic similarities allowed the experts to isolate common inherited characteristics [source: LiveScience]. From there, the psychologists pinpointed low-stress, highly sociable and conscientious individuals as having the widest happiness ranges. You can think of a happiness range in terms of emotional elasticity. Optimistic folks with strong interpersonal relationships may bounce back into shape sooner after difficult events. On the flip side, people who are more pessimistic and antisocial may take longer to recover.

Fortunately, humans aren't hopelessly bound by genetics. There are plenty of ways for the cynics among us to find happiness. And while intelligence doesn't significantly affect intrinsic happiness, it does take a little brain power to alter your mentality to focus on the good. In fact, a relatively new branch of psychology is devoted to understanding how people can train themselves to be happier.

Pioneered by Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, positive psychology concentrates on how positive emotions, such as optimism, gratitude and mindfulness, influence overall happiness and satisfaction. Its logic follows that if people put those attributes into practice, they'll reap the benefits of happiness. Spending time with others, performing acts of kindness and pursuing fulfilling goals, for instance, should foster ultimate joy.

From there, happiness could actually make you smarter. Neurological studies have shown that the sunny emotion promotes broader thinking skills and creativity. Our longevity also profits from all of this good cheer. Relieved from the undue strain that stress produces in our bodies, the happiest people tend to live the longest.

Now that's something to smile about.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Edelson, Ed. "Nothing Smart About Happiness." HealthDay Consumer News Service. Aug. 14, 2005.
  • LiveScience. "Happiness Is Partly Inherited." March 4, 2008. (May 5, 2009)
  • Lloyd, Robin. "The Keys to Happiness, and Why We Don't Use Them." LiveScience. Feb. 27, 2006. (April 30, 2009)
  • Max, D.T. "Happiness 101." The New York Times Magazine. Jan. 7, 2007. (April 30, 2009)
  • Morris, Holly J. "Happiness Explained." U.S. News & World Report. Sept. 3, 2001. (April 30, 2009)
  • Soltis, Greg. "5 Keys to Happiness." LiveScience. Aug. 22, 2008. (April 30, 2009)
  • Trejos, Nancy. "Is Ignorance Bliss?" The Washington Post. June 6, 2008. (April 30, 2009)
  • Wolfers, Justin. "Is Ignorance Really Bliss?" The New York Times. Jan. 15, 2009. (April 30, 2009)