Sunday 17 August 2014

The intelligent pursuit of happiness

Happiness is what many people say they want, and it certainly ranked high in the minds of the authors of the American constitution, which may be a recommendation, or a warning. Centuries later psychologists have joined in the pursuit, swimming into the waters formerly infested by philosophers to make their helpful suggestions: count your blessings, set your expectations low, love your neighbour unless they are married to someone else, take each day as it comes, live for the moment, and never let a fatuous banality remain unrepeated.

As you may detect, from time to time I have tried to take a positive view of life, but felt too gloomy to carry out all the uplifting exercises with the required conscientiousness. Perhaps, other than having a tragic sentiment towards life as Miguel de Unamuno so aptly decribed it, I was aware from Lykken’s work that happiness levels have a homeostatic quality, and tend to oscillate around a personal mean in the long term, the absolute level of which has a genetic component.

It was with gloomy interest that I came across a paper which has tracked happiness estimates long term, and linked them with other personal characteristics such as personality and intelligence.

In “Why is intelligence associated with stability of happiness” British Journal of Psychology (2014) 105, 316-337 Satoshi Kanazawa looked at life course variability in happiness in the National Child Development Study over 18 years.

In the National Child Development Study, life-course variability in happiness over 18 years was significantly negatively associated with its mean level (happier individuals were more stable in their happiness, and it was not due to the ceiling effect), as well as childhood general intelligence and all Big Five personality factors (except for Agreeableness). In a multiple regression analysis, childhood general intelligence was the strongest predictor of life-course variability in life satisfaction, stronger than all Big Five personality factors, including Emotional stability. More intelligent individuals were significantly more stable in their happiness, and it was not entirely because: (1) they were more educated and wealthier (even though they were); (2) they were healthier (even though they were); (3) they were more stable in their marital status (even though they were); (4) they were happier (even though they were); (5) they were better able to assess their own happiness accurately (even though they were); or (6) they were better able to recall their previous responses more accurately or they were more honest in their survey responses (even though they were both). While I could exclude all of these alternative explanations, it ultimately remained unclear why more intelligent individuals were more stable in their happiness.

Kanazawa reviews the literature, and sets out some expectations: Childhood general intelligence is significantly positively associated with education and earnings; more intelligent individuals on average achieve greater education and earn more money. Intelligence [low] also predicts negative life events, such as accidents, injuries, and unemployment. If more intelligent individuals exercise greater control over their life circumstances, because their resources protect them from unexpected external shocks in their environment, then we would expect more intelligent, more educated and wealthier individuals to experience less variability in their subjective well-being over time. Studies in positive psychology generally show that individuals return to their baseline ‘happiness set point’ after major life events, both positive and negative. So, if less intelligent, and thus less educated and wealthy, individuals experience more negative life events, which temporarily lower their subjective well-being before they return to their baseline ‘happiness set points’, then they are expected to have greater life-course variability in happiness.

Intelligence is associated with health and longevity, and more intelligent children on average tend to live longer and healthier lives than less intelligent children, although it is not known why. Health is significantly associated with psychological well-being. So, it is possible that more intelligent individuals are more stable in their happiness over time because they are more likely to remain constantly healthy than less intelligent individuals.

The National Child Development Study (NCDS) is a large-scale prospectively longitudinal study, which has followed British respondents since birth for more than half a century. Look on this work, ye mighty, and weep. If you want a monument to these island people, look no further. For no other purpose than wanting to know how to give children good lives, all babies (n = 17,419) born in Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) during 03–09 March 1958 were tested, re-interviewed in 1965 (n = 15,496), in 1969 (n = 18,285), in 1974 (n = 14,469), in 1981 (n = 12,537), in 1991 (n = 11,469), in 1999–2000 (n = 11,419), in 2004–2005 (n = 9,534), and in 2008–2009 by which time they were age 50–51 (n = 9,790). If you want this level of intellectual curiosity and altruistic concern for others, avoid caliphates.

The NCDS has one of the strongest measures of childhood general intelligence of all large-scale surveys. The respondents took multiple intelligence tests at Ages 7, 11, and 16. At 7, they took four cognitive tests (Copying Designs, Draw-a-Man, Southgate Group Reading, and Problem Arithmetic). At 11, they took five cognitive tests (Verbal General Ability, Nonverbal General Ability, Reading Comprehension, Mathematical, and Copying Designs). At 16, they took two cognitive tests (Reading Comprehension and Mathematical Comprehension).

Kanazawa did a factor analysis at each age to compute their general intelligence. All cognitive test scores at each age loaded only on one latent factor, with reasonably high factor loadings (Age 7: Copying Designs = .67, Draw-a-Man = .70, Southgate Group Reading = .78, and Problem Arithmetic = .76; Age 11: Verbal General Ability = .92, Nonverbal General Ability = .89, Reading Comprehension = .86, Mathematical = .90, and Copying Designs = .49; Age 16: Reading Comprehension = .91, and Mathematics Comprehension = .91). The latent general intelligence scores at each age were converted into the standard IQ metric, with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. Then, he performed a second-order factor analysis with the IQ scores at three different ages to compute the overall childhood general intelligence score. The three IQ scores loaded only on one latent factor with very high factor loadings (Age 7 = .87; Age 11 = .95; Age 16 = .92). He used the childhood general intelligence score in the standard IQ metric as the main independent variable in his analyses of the life-course variability in subjective well-being.

Incidentally, it is a general rule that all cognitive tests load on a common factor. They do not have to do so. It’s just the way the results come out. The Big Five Personality Factors were only measured at age 51. Psychologists hadn’t got themselves sufficiently together on the factor analysis of personality 50 years ago when the surveys started. Anyway, personality doesn’t change all that much over the life course.

Questionnaire reports about life satisfaction can be unreliable, but the long term survey has an internal check: respondent had been asked how satisfied with life they expected to be in 10 years time, and that estimate could be compared with their actual reports a decade later. Kanazawa found that more intelligent individuals appeared to be slightly better able to predict their future level of happiness than less intelligent individuals. He used the prediction inaccuracies at ages 33 and 42 as proxy measures of the respondent's ability to assess their own current level of subjective well-being accurately. Interestingly, more intelligent NCDS respondents were simultaneously more accurate in their recall and more honest in their responses, assessed by looking at another question about how tall they were, their accuracy and honesty calculated when their heights were actually measured in a later sweep of the survey.

Now to the results. The first point to make, cautiously, is that since this is an excellent, totally representative, large population sample, even small effects will be detected. The figure below shows the effect of intelligence in reducing happiness variability, and that is dramatic enough. The two extreme categories of childhood general intelligence – those with IQs below 75 and those with IQs above 125 – were separated by nearly one full standard deviation in the life-course variability in life satisfaction. However, many of the overall correlations are relatively small.




Although childhood intelligence is the best predictor of happiness, Kanazawa says he does not know why. This is true in terms of the data set, and represents the restraint expected of a researcher. However, as  a mere commentator I am allowed to speculate. Given the angry criticism some people have shown Nicholas Wade for speculating about the role of genetics in the development of different societies, this may seem a very hazardous enterprise. Nonetheless, here is my speculation. Intelligence is a resource, and intelligent people know it. They may feel they will be able to overcome problems, or at the very least work round them because of their higher level of ability. This gives them the equivalent of money in the bank, available to deal with a rainy day. So, every reverse can be seen for what it is: a nuisance, not a tragedy. The less able have less in the bank. They cannot dampen down the oscillations in mood brought about by adversity. They meet the big waves in a smaller boat, and have a rougher passage.

Can this speculation be tested? It would predict that all life reverses would be overcome more quickly by intelligent persons, with the possible exception of losing a intellectually demanding job, which would damage their sense of intellectual capital. It should predict a lower rate of suicide, which is against the current findings. I may need to work on this speculation a little further.

Note: Marty Seligman was not harmed in the writing of this post.


  1. Infested by philosophers to be a bad thing, for example, in ancient Greece, was infested by this breed. There are many bad philosophers, but you can not generalize. Just as I will not generalize that every mathematician is a lifeless robot.

    My father's business administrator. First of all, you could say, just an example not enough to prove the rule. But perhaps, some individuals are walking archetype of certain occupational categories.

    He is the most optimistic person of high esteem that I know. There is no doubt that he has a high IQ. He is healthy, discounting the smoking habit. It came from a family of smart people. Most of them are happy and conformist. They are not mentally obsessive about anything, except to improve their standard of living.

    My father is a technically intelligent person, but is a moron in INTELLECTUAL capacity. It is completely stupid. I equate with their masons, in fact, they are even smarter than him.

    In real life, my father lives in a society that values ​​people with technical talent, I always denominate as maintainers. He is honest, hard work and if it was not because of the interests that dominate my parents network, we would be taking a more highest income or life standard.

    The world is built for a good part of people like him are mechanically driven to occupy their positions in the society. My father is lucky like most people, you define as intelligent, and I define just how technically smart. If not for these mechanisms, these people would not survive in the midst of real people.

    You are categorically dismissing recent research on giftedness, where iq was not the most important factor. Despise the role of mental illness in genius. You are not very different from dogmatic liberals. The difference is that their dogma can be artificially supported by means of reality.

    The truly smart people solve problems and not keep 'meritocratic' unjust systems. I could quote the example of almost all of my college friends, all of them iq above 110, to say the least, I would estimate the average iq in my class, prior to the party of racial quotas, around at least between 115-120. I do not know any of that had genuine curiosity to seek the true answers of this world. Most are ''socialists''.


  2. my notes are mainly in response to santoculto:

    happiness is a fairly stable construct & it is positively correlated with IQ (think vast scatter plot with data points all around - of course not perfectly correlated - i.e. - it doesn't work/apply to everyone - but in general there is a relationship - scatter plot, data points, dude - that's what research is)

    btw, for what it's worth: our US shibboleth 1st said "life, liberty & the pursuit of PROPERTY" - then property got changed to "happiness" at the last minute:)

    interesting that people look at perfectly good research & say since it does not reflect what i personally see in my (biased sample of) life, it's bad research.

    research on gifted folks will always find less IQ effect simply b/c of the restricted range of IQ in such a sample!

    1. Panjoomby,

      These longitudinal studies using large sample of people through comparisons such as 'people smarter, or with higher iq, are more attractive than less intelligent people'. Please specify. What does 'smarter' or 'higher iq' or ''more attractive''?? John has iq 90 and N'kesha have iq 75, John has higher iq than N'kesha and is smarter than her.

      ''More smart THAN'' and not simply ''more smart''.

      It comes down to iq now. I thought that intelligence was a set of cognitive phenotypes and this requires internal diversity of characteristics. My father is not gifted because his IQ is very likely above 120. And I could cite numerous examples of people I know who score high on their IQ tests, and they do not understand the world they are. I am the youngest of 3 According to some studies, my iq should not be greater than the iq of my brothers. One them is extremely stupid, pseudo-anti-racist, but I do not doubt there's a higher than my IQ.

      I commented on the case of colonial Haiti, when the French smart fraction, which did not understand the world around him and was massacred to the last woman by subclass.

      At a minimum, we must prioritize certain absolute truths, which at best can be only partially discussed, analyzing a large representative sample of people and compare their IQS, their physiological traits and their personality profiles.
      I'm sure there will be greater variation in their scores.

      I do not care to live in a high-tech dystopia, lies and where the chances of being murdered is 70%.

      I'm not disregard the technical maintainers of high level. I'm ignoring the collective attitude of psychometrics to push the idea that these types are smarter.

      And Robin Williams had depression not only because of some autoimmune reaction. Please have caution and consideration in relation to genetic determinism.

      There no weighting anywhere, this is amazing.

      I am extremely happy under certain circumstances and almost-depressant by other circumstances. For example, I'm depressed about the world we live in and in relation to the level of humanity we arrived poorly.

      We accept that research generally is not perfect, but why ??


    2. Dear Santoculto, I appreciate your interest in my blog, which is written to communicate intelligence research to a wider audience. It is difficult to answer all your points, because you are raising questions which have been answered in other parts of my blog, where I talk about introductions to intelligence testing, and give summaries of the current research in the area. If you could read those, particularly the introductions by Ian Deary and the textbook written by Earl Hunt then I think I would be in a better position to discuss matters based on a common understanding of the basic findings and procedures.

    3. I already know what I'll find in these texts. That my dear, is that we speak different languages​​. You are a 'mathematician' while I'm a 'humanist'. However, I am not a typical humanist, if we can treat them that way.

      I'm concerned with fundamental issues of human traits. The key points are very important, because if they are wrong, then we have a chain of subsequent errors. I'm clearly trying to radicalize, if I set this way, with psychometry. If you wish, I can stop commenting here. However, I would like you to explain before which is so hard to understand about my points ??

      I'm not against iq tests as an important measure not only the intelligence or part of it as well as possible correlation factor. I am against the evil use of the tests and ''verbal'' radicalization of the results.

      I do not doubt that more intelligent people are happier. But realize this sentence. The most intelligent people are creative, scientific or very high IQ geniuses. Up to a certain point, the intelligence, not just as iq, but also as phenotypic characteristics of behavior, it is extremely refreshing to provide a high standard of living and a successful life without major mishaps.

      I promise to stop commenting here, if you wish, but before, I would like you to explain his remarks contrary to my.

      My mind is very practical. About the imperfection of psychometric research. My criticism of these studies not only or specifically apply to the methods used, but the criteria.

      The smartest people are happier, but the geniuses who are the most intelligent human beings were and are mostly less happy than average. In fact, it can be understood melancholy, as part of the phenotype of exceptionally bright. It is popularly conceived stupid people tend to be more cheerful than the smartest people.

      The latest research on intelligence and correlations found that 'smarter' are more attractive, but our personal experiences do not show us that.

      When research does not prove the reality may be that there is something wrong with it.

      When Kanazawa evaluated the attractiveness studies, he found that the most attractive detained an average IQ of 107 while the less attractive detained an average IQ of 90 However, people with the highest levels of attractiveness, detained an average IQ of 100 .

      Nor the most intelligent people are more attractive,
      even if the IQ be used as the sole criterion. Like I said, you use very strong terms, confounding the perception of most readers. Anyway, I will not dwell. But if you can meet my requests I will be grateful.


    4. If you already know what you will find in texts you have not read, then comment here as much as you like, but I think we will be at cross-purposes and unable to communicate to any reasonable effect.

    5. I can read, but like I said, I know I'll find intelligence = iq (in parts, that's true, but it is very complex, it is not impossible to see, I think psychometrics has worked against 'humanist' theories or I could say, holistic theories, seeking all the characteristics of human intelligence, still within the concept before seeking for correlations.) is faith in the intelligence tests, in my non-humble opinion, is precipitated by the large amount measurement error of the past and present, is based on the emphasis of the concept of intelligence in technical functionality only when that any person can navigate the territory, he needs instinctively understand all operating standards that find around you. It is a conceptual model based on action and reaction, since our lives are governed by time and not by chance, although they are important. But I'll read it then.


  3. On the subject of why smarter people commit suicide more often, there's a book "Why Smart People Hurt" by Eric Maisel. It's a good account of things that smart people suffer that ordinary ones don't, and the problems it leads to - like drug addiction, suicide.

  4. re: seligman & positive psychology - i just roll my eyes. psychology invests all its energy in "mindfulness" & other hapless placebo-like mantras. psych gets whatever scraps fall off the MD's plate - while psych ignores the one thing it does extremely well - reliable measurement of valid traits. psych downplays that, b/c that one thing is so biologically based that it's not "fair" or "equal."

  5. Intelligence isn't a thing that you have or don't have. It is the manifestation of many factors - most of which are genetic. Intelligence is polygenic. As I remember there are currently 317 SNPs that are associated with intelligence. But of course the total keeps rising.

    It may be that many of those identified SNPs also code pleiotropically for good health and mental tranquility.

  6. Kanazawa's ability to find extremely small correlations and blow their importance out of proportion is striking. The only conclusion I got reading his paper is that if intelligence and happiness really are correlated, the correlation is almost zero.

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