If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?

July 15, 2016

By just about anybody's definition of success, ophthalmologists are successful: intelligent, well-paid, able to make people’s lives better and held in high esteem by the public. Not to mention good-looking. So they must be happy-right? Not necessarily.

By just about anybody's definition of success, ophthalmologists are successful:  intelligent, well-paid, able to make people’s lives better and held in high esteem by the public. Not to mention good-looking. 

So they must be happy-right? Not necessarily. 

According to Raj Raghunathan, author of "If you're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?" highly successful people are not more likely, and may actually be less likely to believe they are leading happy, meaningful and fulfilling lives. 

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But if intelligence results in better decision-making, shouldn’t the logical expectation be that smart people would make better life choices and reap happiness as a result?

The author’s analysis of smart, well-educated "successful" people points to at least two reasons for this phenomenon.

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One is the tendency for these individuals to be competitive, comparing themselves constantly to others to judge whether things are going well. As a result, they might feel happy only if they outcompete others in some way. Their happiness, or lack thereof, is therefore only relative to others.

The author says that another characteristic of these smart but unhappy people is that, highly educated though they may be, they have never taken a course on how to lead a happy, meaningful and fulfilling life or seriously asked themselves what it would take for them to conclude that they have achieved such a life.

The poster child for this person is the straight A student who works hard in school to please her teachers, parents and other authority figures, becomes a highly paid professional with the nice car, home and other material accoutrements, perhaps a spouse and children, only to ask herself "When will I become happy?"

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So instead, these successful people pursue the usual surrogates for happiness (e.g. money, power, a biweekly column in Ophthalmology Times).

If you had 3 wishes...

 

People who continue to think about happiness as a competition judge themselves entirely relative to others; Dr. Raghunathan says they “outsource” their criteria for happiness.  For example, it is not enough to have “enough” money; they must have more than other people. 

Dr. Raghunathan describes an interesting experiment.  When a large group of adults are asked to imagine that they find a genie in a bottle who grants them three wishes, only 6% of adults volunteer happiness as something they would ask for. 

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On the other hand, when they are presented with a list of possible requests for the genie from which to choose, almost everybody checks the box that they would ask for happiness. 

When asked why they did not volunteer happiness as one of their three wishes, subjects commonly say that they didn't know what the genie would give them. "The genie's idea of happiness might be different from mine." When those same subjects are then asked what their idea of happiness is, however, they often have difficulty answering.

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And you, dear reader (including my intelligent, well-paid, attractive, and fabulously successful ophthalmologist readers)? Are you leading a happy, meaningful and fulfilling life?