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MCLEOD: Are smart people miserable?

Are smart people miserable?

Ernest Hemingway once said, "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

There's a long-held belief that average people are happier than smart people. The premise -- frequently touted at MENSA meetings and Unitarian cocktail parties -- is that the super smart are more likely to be tormented by issues like global warming and the meaning of life than the average Joe or Jane.

The masses in the middle of the bell curve may be content with a warm place to sleep and an occasional martini on Friday night. But the intellectual elite are wracked with despair because they alone understand life's complexities.

It sounds good in theory. The problem is, it's not true. According to Psychology Today, there's no correlation between intelligence and happiness.

One could make the point, if you haven't figured out how to be happy, how smart can you be?

"I'm too smart to be happy" sounds more noble than "I'm too fat to be happy," but it's really just one of the many excuses we use to justify our angst. "I can't be happy because I had bad parents." "I can't be happy because I hate my job." "I can't be happy because I'm in a bad marriage." "I can't be happy because I'm too old."

The truth is, happiness is hard work, no matter what your IQ, age, weight or marital status. Happiness doesn't come to you, you have to create it.

People need two things to be happy -- purpose and pleasure.

We need to know that we're making progress toward meaningful goals, and we need to experience the joy of being fully alive in the moment we're in.

The challenge is you need both. Neither purpose nor pleasure alone is enough. You can work tirelessly toward world peace or scooping soup for the poor, but if you don't take pleasure in the process, you'll never be truly happy. On the flip side, you can spend endless days at the spa having every inch of your body puffed, fluffed and soothed, but after a certain period of time, a lack of true purpose will eventually eat away at your soul.

We often believe that happiness is waiting for us on the other side of the if only's. If only I wasn't married to this person, didn't have this job, were thin or could solve the world's problems, then I would be happy. We tell ourselves that if only we could rid our self of our problems (spouse, job, ab flab) then we would be happy. But it's a myth.

If you want to be happy you need to do two things:

  1. Decide to care about something. Whether it's your kids, your job, your church or global warming, find something that matters to you and help make it better. Being part of something bigger than yourself will boost your pride and self-esteem. Don't do it for external praise, do it because it matters to you.
  2. Be fully present. Happiness isn't found in the past or future. Reviewing pleasurable memories can build your confidence. But staying stuck in the past robs you of the present. Thinking about the future helps you set goals, but you don't want to put your happiness on hold until it gets here. Quiet your brain chatter and focus on the moment right in front of you. There's pleasure to be found in almost everything.

Find a purpose and decide that you're going to love each moment of your life while you're living it. It's not easy, but it sure is intelligent.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of "The Triangle of Truth," a Washington Post "Top Five Book for Leaders."