A new way to think about brainpower.
The question “why aren’t smart people happier” basically takes the question asked by books such as Stumbling on Happiness that asks why people are not better at attaining happiness and modifies it to why aren’t smart people at least better at it.
This assumes people seek happiness as their primary goal, but I think there are well supported reasons to think that this is not true. The literature that points out that many people spend far too little time on activities that make them happy and too much time on those that don’t is commonly used to prove that people are fundamentally irrational or misinformed about what makes them happy. These same facts can alternatively be used to show that happiness is not peoples primary goal; that things like social status, money, or self-identity fulfillment are more important. These alternative explanations make the finding that people work more, commute longer, and take fewer vacations than one might expect under the hedonistic assumption unsurprising. Smart people are in fact better at the solving the problems of attaining higher social status, earning more money, etc.
As for what can actually explain any correlation between intelligence and happiness the author again does a poor job. The author points out that there are very few things people can do that reliably increase their happiness by a large amount but leaves out that this is because the majority of the variance between people in happiness is caused by factors like genetics that contribute to a persons baseline level of happiness. These factors are also correlated with personality factors such as extroversion, so it seems likely that any correlation between intelligence and happiness can be explained by correlations between intelligence and personality factors. Isn’t the idea that happiness is best attained by those who don’t try to attack it as a well defined problem just pointing out the negative correlation between neuroticism and happiness?
I've been using the phrase "ungoogleable question" for a few years now to try and get at something like the issue you're describing. The poorly-defined vs well-defined brings me a great deal of clarity to the matter.
In another Substack thread there was some discussion around how DALL-E type AI machines can't really make a distinction between "X does Y" and "X tries to do Y". Something about capturing the essence of "trying" becomes a very difficult concept, and it certainly tilts things toward the less-well-defined end of the spectrum. And anyway AI doesn't try, only does.
I think of the Daft Punk song, Human After All.
I think one of the reasons for this split has to do with something like a religious movement in opposition to the flaws of traditional religion. You point out that asking “how can we live a good life” fell out of fashion in the last 200 years or so; I think this is a result of western intellectuals trying to avoid the problems with religion. They ended up creating a kind of religion that says “it is not part of a good life to think seriously about what a good life consists of.” I made this argument in more detail here:
My husband and I left the city last year and moved out to a rural area. Suddenly the problems he has to solve are less "how to increase in-game ad impressions" (well-defined), and more "how to make money from 5 acres of land" (poorly defined). He's never been happier.
I'll just briefly comment on the AI part: the real fear around AI is that, using your dichotomy, it's incredibly good at turning poorly defined problems into well-defined ones.
You make some excellent points made here. Maybe people are a little too literal and materialistic. The Moon is a big rock but it is also a fecund source of ancient symbolism that predates Christianity. "We've Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy-- And the World's Getting Worse" Hillman and Ventura is a worthwhile short read that might be of some value.
I didn’t see this in the comments, but: are you sure that being happy is the kind of thing that people can be good at?
Obviously, some people are happier than others, but maybe this is due almost entirely to luck.
There's a division in classical, Attic thought between sophia and phronesis: the former is timeless/always true knowledge, like the speed of light in a vacuum. The latter is contingent, high-context knowledge like how to solve a social problem or motivate warriors. Aristotle says in the Ethics that phronesis is "what is suitable is . . . relative to the person, the circumstances, and the object" (1122a25-6), while of sophia "will study none of the things that make a man happy" (1143b119).
This division carries over to NLP pretty clearly. Humans are very good at close-up, high context language tasks ("close reading") while machines (statistical corpus methods or ML) are good at low context "distant reading."
Many good points, in a clear prose!
I still believe that a few contrarian points should be considered more strongly:
1) What is the distribution of "undefined problem solving" in the population vs "defined problem solving"? The only hard link about a decoupling here is the "smart people do dumb things", which is not causal (as picked in other comments), and the unhappiness of the "intelligent" which varies strongly across societies. For all we know, it still might be highly correllated!
2) about the happiness, I have the nagging suspicion that it comes in part from having to navigate a "defined" world that is MADE "undefined" by the dominant mass of people who like to navigate this better. See the number of eminently scientifically tractable global problems that get irremediably crippled by politics; or just take a few hours / days navigating an ubuesque administration that should have taken all of 3 minutes. This can be despair inducing! This matches by the way with the "square peg in a round hole" feeling that a lot of intelligent / high IQ people report throughout their lives.
3) finally, we tend to focus on the failure modes of the high performers in cognitive tests and their correllates because they are relatively tractable as a domain of study. But the "undefined intelligence" failure modes abound (e.g: fuzzily interpretation of an exact theory leading to incorrect decisions, bad "instinctive" equivalence about morality of macro- vs personal economy, etc) but their study are either consigned to history, or are largely neglected because it smacks of class condescention in first approximation (behold: the mistakes of the poor and wretched...)
I hope that was clear, not a big commenter :)
> Over the last generation, we have solved tons of well-defined problems. We eradicated smallpox and polio. We landed on the moon. We built better cars, refrigerators, and televisions. We even got ~15 IQ points smarter! And how did our incredible success make us feel?
Depends who 'us' is. I'm from a middle-income country, and I feel comfortable saying my generation would score a lot higher on national average self-reported subjective wellbeing (Cantril ladder, say) than our grandparents, who were very poor and desperate. The World Happiness Reports give a lot more data and a more global perspective: https://worldhappiness.report/archive/ In the US there's also that Easterlin paradox dynamic due to increasing economic inequality as well.
But I'm being uncharitably nitpicky. I liked and agreed with most of your essay, and certain passages crystallized hazy intuitions I've always struggled to articulate, so thank you for that!
This is a really useful way of defining the different categories, and why "IQ" is so unsatisfying as an all encompassing metric despite all the evidence you lay out for it.
I think that this might be a result of comparisons between happiness levels being difficult. How do you know that happiness is but for your subjective experience. How do you know what “happiness” means but comparing with the normal usage which probably depends on the average of the people around you.
People with higher IQ have some weird beliefs but highlighting examples of smart people with weird beliefs doesn’t seem like a good argument. What matters is the relative frequency.
If we described the traits of successful people, then the intelligent would disproportionately have those traits. They finish high school, attend college, get PhDs, avoid welfare dependency, avoid divorce, avoid prison at higher rates. I think that the idea that life is an IQ test seems to hold to some extent. Smart people avoid bad things. I think happiness is just tricky to measure.
We define most of the skills as hard and soft based on what can get us money and social status. The more we can make out of a skill, more it gets appreciated and celebrated by the society we have created.
Money is a good indicator of how useful any skill is and the skill should get recognition in society, but having no upper limit to the “accumulation” desire in humans, happiness will always be traded off.
AI section - Every major aspect of technology, and growth is about how to make our “life” easier. Life here for businessmen is to make more money, for Governments is to keep a tap on every individual and intellectuals bigger status and for a tiny fraction, all the 3 but, there is this 90% (guess) of people like me who seems to be using it for getting lazy and dependent. When we calculate the happiness of this globe, these 90% significantly matter. Guessing on the trend, I think the scores gonna go down. For the top 10% also, they might have achieved the goals for themselves, but in this process, they create many more variables to deal with and when they find their family and loved ones left out to be the part of that 90%, again gets unhappier.
Working to understand it better.
Kleinberg and colleagues writing about Algorithmic Fairness (2015-2018) in the context of criminal sentencing and academic admissions proved that if you define fairness by a series of clear, unambiguous criteria it is impossible to create a decision rule (algorithm) that enables all the fairness criteria to be satisfied simultaneously. In other words, many real-life problems, even if you can define them well, are impossible to solve using "intelligence" alone.
The way to solve what mathematicians refer to as "over-constrained" problems is to relax some of the constraints. But choosing which constraints to relax for real-life problems is often not at all obvious. Here's where the practical wisdom described by Aristotle and exemplified by Adam's grandma comes in. For real-life human problems, only humans can possess that practical wisdom because it comes from a lifetime of human experience, emotion, and finitude.
However, I would not be too quick to write off the ability of machines to cope with poorly-defined or over-constrained problems in realms other than human real-life. Who knows what thoughts are coursing through the Azure cloud? And could humans understand them even if we knew they existed?
This guy is smart and right.
(Professor) William Maxwell, Ed.D.
(Ed.D. Harvard University)
Founder and President
International Conference on Thinking(R), icot21023,org
I love this post. It makes so much sense, and I especially like the last bit about the wisdom of grandmothers.
I lost my mother this year, and my kids are experiencing the loss of a favorite Gaga that resonates very strongly with this.