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13 Reasons Why a High IQ Can Make You Less Happy

Having superior native intelligence can be more alienating than endearing.

Key points

  • High-IQ people often experience social isolation, which can lead to depression or make them act more introverted than is their nature.
  • The very intelligent know they're intelligent, so they're prone to setting lofty expectations for themselves that they can't meet.
  • Because high-IQ people typically learn things effortlessly, they may never develop the habit of perseverance so important to long-term success.
 George Milton/Pexels
Source: George Milton/Pexels

Many authors have discussed the advantages of being intellectually gifted. And that's hardly surprising. What is surprising, though, is how many authors have also written about the drawbacks of being not so much blessed as cursed by possessing a high IQ—and particularly a super-high IQ.

It's something like having too much of a good thing—in this case, missing the sweet spot not on the downside but, paradoxically, on the way up. In principle, at least, we admire geniuses. After all, we live in a meritorious society, and in many ways evaluate people on the basis of intelligence. Yet in actuality (i.e, when we're personally involved with them), our reactions tend to be much more ambiguous—and much less positive.

How else to explain why intellectually superior students so frequently develop apprehension about exhibiting their intelligence in the classroom? They may avoid volunteering the right answer, hoping that someone else will raise their hand. For if they routinely offer an answer no one else can come up with, they're likely to have the uncomfortable experience of being glared at. Or even being made fun of or bullied on the playground. Plus, being identified as "teacher's pet" isn't adulatory; it's censoring.

This post will identify 13 reasons why unless gifted individuals learn how to manage their intellect wisely, it can negatively affect their performance and, interpersonally, alienate those around them.

What are the central elements of happiness or well-being?

Historically, scientists have measured happiness one-dimensionally as life satisfaction, whereas today, happiness and the more representative term, well-being, have been defined more comprehensively. They're now understood as incorporating many distinct, though ultimately linked, factors—such as autonomy, personal growth, positive relationships, self-acceptance, mastery, and cultivating a purposeful, meaningful life (e.g., see S. B. Kaufman, 2018).

In the 2016 book If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?, Raj Raghunathari (University of Texas, Austin) explains that once a person's elemental needs are met, three things are key to their happiness: namely, having meaningful, rewarding social relationships, being competent in whatever they focus their energy on, and possessing the freedom to make independent life decisions.

In what follows, all the above happiness indicators will be employed as benchmarks to better comprehend why, unfortunately, high intelligence can interfere with attaining what ideally we'd all characterize as well-being.

13 reasons why having a high IQ can make you miserable

Investigating the ramifications of the intellectually gifted begins with Lewis Terman, who revised the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales and proceeded to initiate a longitudinal study of children with high IQs.

His research showed that "intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated." Moreover, the gifted didn't end up significantly happier than those with lower IQs, nor were their divorce, alcoholism, and suicide rates better than the national average. As David Robson (2015), summarizing Terman's work, concludes: "At best, [he found that] a great intellect makes no difference to your life satisfaction; at worst, it can actually mean you're less fulfilled."

Later scientists, employing more sophisticated criteria, have pretty much agreed with Terman's earlier counter-intuitive verdict, acknowledging the multiple burdens of a high IQ. So—in layperson's terms—I'll summarize 13 disadvantages of being "advantaged" with superior intelligence:

1. The very intelligent know they're intelligent, so they're prone to setting lofty expectations for themselves that too often they can't meet. Thus, they're frequently disappointed (at times depressed) by their level of accomplishment falling substantially below their ideals. And, just as important, they may fail to meet the expectations others have of them.

2. High-IQ individuals are more apt to have anxiety issues. They tend to think more about the negative things that happen to them, ruminating and replaying scenarios to learn what went awry. They may attend to or obsess about matters that others would view as petty or inconsequential.

3. Very smart people don't necessarily make better decisions. They're likely to inject personal biases into their transactions, which can seriously undermine their objectivity. Having a high IQ doesn't eliminate them from being afflicted by as many wrongheaded assumptions or blind spots as others.

4. Because high-IQ people learn things so easily when they're young, they're liable to get so accustomed to succeeding without putting forth much effort that they never develop the habit of perseverance, which is so fundamental to long-term success. And closely related to this absence is their not acquiring the self-discipline requisite to ensuring their best performance.

Ironically, not being accustomed to struggling to learn new things, when they're in situations that demand they exert themselves, they can procrastinate or abandon the endeavor entirely. It may simply seem too arduous for them, too far outside their comfort zone.

5. Because they're prone to live in their heads, they may be largely cut off from their emotions. And because of their constantly activated intellect, the feelings they can eloquently express may yet be extremely difficult to let go of.

6. High-IQ people tend to overthink or over-analyze things. They can avoid taking action until it's too late, and so miss out on time-limited opportunities. Many writers have commented that it can be hard for these individuals to fall asleep at night because, with an over-busy mind, they can turn things over and over, and so keep themselves in an aroused state incompatible with slumber.

7. Very smart people have difficulty avoiding the temptation to correct others' mistakes since they can be sticklers for getting things right. Not surprisingly, this habit doesn't win much favor with others, who can be embarrassed, annoyed, or offended by this near-compulsive tendency.

8. Making and keeping friends is often problematic. It's hard for others to feel comfortable getting close to someone whose intellectual prowess far outshines their own. And this is especially true if the gifted individual can't keep themselves from demonstrating their superior knowledge or acumen. Here is where intellectual humility becomes crucial. But many of the mentally gifted fail to develop this trait, and their relationships suffer accordingly.

9. High-IQ people can easily become frustrated and lose patience when what they share is repeatedly misunderstood, despite several attempts to clarify it—even dumb it down. Doubtless, however inadvertently, making others feel inferior isn't an endearing trait—another reason why others may not wish to associate with them, as well as leading the gifted to find socializing dissatisfying.

10. Their sense of humor may be totally out of sync with others. Not only do they get a joke's punch line more quickly, but what others find amusing to them may seem insipid, strained, or trite. Still, in their efforts to gel with others, they may (resentfully) feel obliged to fake laughter anyway.

11. The intellectually elite more commonly experience social isolation. And that can result in depression or force them toward introversion, which may not reflect their inborn preferences. When they can't locate others with mentalities similar to theirs, they're likely to choose solitude over being with others who make them feel lonelier than they'd be on their own.

Most startling here is the case of math prodigy Sufiah Yusol, who enrolled at Oxford University at age 12, then dropped all her courses before her finals and began waitressing. And later, she worked as a (gasp!) call girl. Obviously, the academic, social, and cultural pressures she faced in that elite environment exceeded her coping abilities. And such a sorry outcome reflects the fate of others who lack the interpersonal skills or cognitive maturity to deal with conspicuously standing out from those in their proximity.

12. The intellectually gifted don't simply know more than others but are acutely aware of all they don't know. And realizing the inevitable limits of their intellect can leave them distressed, discouraged, and disappointed.

13. Thomas Gray said, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." This expression suggests how those with exceptional IQs recognize things that others do not. And much of what they're cerebrally "privileged" to know can actually hurt, worry, or antagonize them.

Finally, all this is not to say that high-IQ individuals can't be happy. Still, reaching that desirable state is nowhere near as easy for them as most people might think.

NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part post. The first was "What Are the Hazards of Having a High IQ?"

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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