Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Intelligence is irrelevant to a happy old age

Huh. I was once on a lunch date with 2 female university professors who are friends of mine, and I asked idly if they'd like to be smarter. You know, to be able to do something really great, like cure cancer, or invent a new method of collecting lint off black clothes. Of course I would, so I was surprised when they said no! Their reasons were largely about social integration, I gathered. (I did wonder if men would have responded the same way to the same question.)

Since we can't be magically smarter, I guess this is good news for us all: being smart doesn't make you happy in your old age. The next question is, does it actually make you unhappier?

New Scientist Breaking News - Intelligence is irrelevant to a happy old age:

Previous studies have shown that people who possess attributes regarded as desirable by modern Western society, such as intelligence, money or sporting talent are rewarded with higher social status, a better paid job and a more comfortable standard of living. Higher social standing has also been linked to increased happiness. However, Gow and his co-authors suggest that intelligent people may also be more concerned about achievement and more aware of alternative lifestyles, which may lead to dissatisfaction.


Anonymous said...

Is a lack of intelligence really what stops people from doing great things such as cure cancer?

I know too many smart people that have done nothing great to think that more intelligence would help. It's something else.

Erik said...

It must have been something.

One of my favorite NYT Magazine pieces ever was an article by Jon Gertner about humans' inability to predict what will make them happy: legit version, free copyright violation.

Angus McIntyre said...

anonymous wrote:

I know too many smart people that have done nothing great to think that more intelligence would help. It's something else.

Or perhaps our definition of 'intelligence' is too narrow. There's the old saw about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration: we're still ready to believe in the myth that if the Good Fairy gives us the gift of genius at birth, all doors will be opened to us. Experience and observation ought to tell us that the people who accomplish things often have other qualities as well: ambition, self-discipline and an ability to ignore distractions (and self-doubt) are probably among them. Should we count these as aspects of 'intelligence'?

Alternatively, if those qualities are outside 'intelligence', are there particular forms or flavors of 'intelligence' that lend themselves to achieving something? Why does one smart person have 'good ideas', while another may be - to all intents and appearances - equally talented, but their ideas never lead anywhere.

Intuitively, I feel that imagination may play a part here, but there's an open question as to whether the 'successful' intelligent person is successful because they generate better ideas, or because they generate more ideas and, crucially, know which ones to pursue. There's an interesting essay by Neil Gaiman in which he discusses the question of inspiration. If you're prepared to accept Gaiman as a successful smart person, it sounds like his secret might indeed be that he generates lots of ideas and chooses the best ones.

And then does something about it.