Why Aren't Smart, Accomplished People Happy?

A woman stands holding a brown umbrella. Credit: Edu Lauton/Unsplash

A woman stands holding a brown umbrella. Credit: Edu Lauton/Unsplash

If you have money, intelligence, and health, then you should be happy. At least, that’s what many of us tell ourselves. However, according to recent studies, intelligent and accomplished adults are reporting record levels of unhappiness, and this trend isn’t exclusive to adults. Studies have found that upper-class children are actually more depressed and anxious than their middle- or low-income peers.

These findings are perplexing. After all, it stands to reason that the smartest and most wealthy individuals should be the best equipped to make choices that maximize their satisfaction and joy. However, research into happiness has revealed the exact opposite: being more educated, wealthy, and accomplished doesn’t really do much to predict whether or not someone will be happy.

If being smart and accomplished doesn’t make people happy (and research indicates that it doesn’t), then what does?

This question seems simple, but Raj Raghunathan, a Professor at the University of Texas and author of the book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, notes that it quickly leads to a whole series of other, far more complicated questions. To begin with, what is happiness? Do the things that cause happiness vary by age, gender, or some other classification? Do people have control over their happiness?

None of these questions are particularly easy to answer, partly because of how we have traditionally understood the term “happiness.” Raghunathan explains that happiness is typically seen as something that’s subjective. Different things make different people happy, and so we assume that it’s a feeling that cannot be universally defined.

But despite the apparent subjectivity of happiness, all humans tend to associate it with specific states that can be defined: joy, calmness, fulfilment, and so on. Raghunathan asserts that these universal similarities tell us a number of important things about happiness, how it can be defined, and how it can be achieved.

The spirit of abundance

According to Raghunathan, the most important thing that a person can do to secure happiness is adopt what he calls the "abundance mindset." This, he claims, represents an inclusive approach to happiness. In other words, it is an approach where "there's room for everybody to grow."

Raghunathan asserts that such a mindset is in direct opposition to the scarcity mindset the dominates our current capitalist-based society, which reflects a world view of, “if I win, someone else loses.” When viewing the world through a scarcity mindset, Raghunathan asserts that we tend to see our happiness as something that always come at the expense of the happiness of others — as something that we have to fight and vie for.

Our society is still largely based on this spirit of scarcity. Raghunathan notes that, in previous eras, this worldview was helpful and beneficial, allowing us to beat the competition and survive. However, he asserts that this approach is no longer necessary. In fact, it is actively harmful to most modern individuals., as we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and our desire for “more” can never be fully satiated.

"Most of us are the products of people who survived in what was for a very, very long time, in our evolution as a species, a scarcity-oriented universe. Food was scarce, resources were scarce, fertile land was scarce, and so on. So we do have a very hard-wired tendency to be scarcity-oriented. But I think what has happened over time is we don't have to literally fight for our survival every day,” he says.

Consequently, instead of competing with others and worrying about what we will have in the future, Raghunathan argues that we should focus on the here and now. To see Raghunathan’s full discussion on happiness and how to adopt an abundance mindset, see the video below from Boma France.