Are Smart People Really Unhappy?

Illustrated by: Anna Sudit.

Are you unhappy? We’re going to take a stab in the dark and guess, probably. After all, no matter what you’ve achieved, our culture is constantly telling you to strive for more: a higher-paying job, a better relationship — harder, faster, stronger. The result: Smart and high-achieving folks are pretty much expected to be miserable, according to If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? a new book by Raj Raghunathan, PhD.
Dr. Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, studies the relationships between affect (a.k.a. mood and happiness) and consumption behavior. What he’s found is that we, in general, put too much effort into material goods and money and not enough into happiness, especially when you consider how many of us want to be happy. (Sound familiar?)

“If you think of happiness, it’s one of our most important goals,” Dr. Raghunathan says. “Happiness is more important than money or being successful. It turns out, smart people should have figured it out. But they aren’t happier. Education does not lead to [happiness] as you would think.”

The reasons for this boil down to what Dr. Raghunathan calls the Fundamental Happiness Paradox. In short, we sacrifice our happiness for other things, whether it’s money or a bigger house or a high-profile job. A good example, he says, is choosing a job with high pay but a poor work environment over a job with lower pay that has a better workplace. But surprise: More money — beyond what you need to meet your basic needs — does not in fact make people happier. A study from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western University found that money only increases joy up to $75,000 — past that, increases in salary don’t add to your happiness.

But don’t lose hope if you chose the higher paying job over a more satisfying one (we once did the same and were miserable), or even a rude-but-hot mate over a kind-but-average-looking one. The point of the book isn’t to show you how you made the wrong decisions, but to get you to rethink how you view happiness — and figure out what it means for you. “I think, to most people, that happiness is a positive state, but beyond that, it is difficult to get people to agree on what it is,” Dr. Raghunathan says. “To someone, it could be a deep connection with someone else, or joy, or a sense of being engaged in deep, meaningful work. So this is why it’s very important to sit down and ask [yourself], what do I equate happiness to be?

He also says it’s important not to chase happiness, something Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, says she agrees with.

“Happiness is one emotion of many, and we’re a little overly focused on wanting to be happy all the time,” Dr. Saltz explains. “It’s one of many important emotions, and what makes people unhappy is aspiring to be happy. It is impossible.”

Okay, so focusing on the wrong things makes us unhappy, and chasing happiness makes us unhappy. Sounds like happiness in general is impossible, right? But it’s not.

Drs. Saltz and Raghunathan agree on certain behavioral changes that can help put you on the path to finding better days. Yep, you have to do the homework; nothing in life is easy. If you’ve been in therapy or read self-help books often, the pointers below will not come as a surprise — but either way, they’re good reminders.

Show gratitude.

“Think of three things that you feel grateful for every day,” Dr. Saltz says. “Just a couple weeks of doing that does impact mood for the positive.” Dr. Raghunathan suggests going even further and writing actual thank-you notes to people for whom you're grateful: “It turns out that expressing gratitude is very good for your happiness, but many of us find it very awkward to write a thank-you note,” Dr. Ragunathan adds. He says that by doing so, relationships can become more meaningful.

Be giving.

This isn’t about giving money, or even volunteering when you don’t really have time, Dr. Raghunathan says. It’s about being giving of yourself. “It’s up to people to look inward and ask Am I doing enough? Be supportive, celebrate other people’s achievements,” he says. Dr. Saltz echoes the sentiment. “Being giving…also improves mood,” she says. “It may not be a material thing; it might be your time, your effort, your love — and that’s not about how many dollars you make.”

Focus on experiences and relationships.

In his book, Dr. Raghunathan features what he calls the Loneliness Scale and the Trust Scale to gauge how much of each is in your life. Too much of the former and/or too little of the latter is a recipe for unhappiness. “We can’t be happy if we don’t have at least one deep connection,” he says.

In the end, the book is an interesting read about what motivates us and why we need to stop and think about our happiness (but not too much). Dr. Saltz warns that, as with any self-help book, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution to finding true happiness. “There are some basic tenets and tools that can help a lot of people, if they can use the book as a diving platform to really get some thought to how these things relate to them and how they might make change and how they might use these tools,” she says. “We’re individuals; we’re complicated. You may need more.”

To complete one of Dr. Raghunathan’s happiness quizzes or exercises, check out the Happy Smarts Project at Happysmarts.com.

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