Wisdom trumps intelligence for life satisfaction

Being smart isn't the secret to happiness and life satisfaction.

It turns out being smart isn’t the secret to happiness and life satisfaction—and it doesn’t predict good choices or behaviour either.

Although it may seem as though a person with a higher IQ would be more likely to be happy and successful, some research shows this isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, psychologists studying a group of 1,500 gifted children from the mid 1920s and throughout their lives found that although the group did well financially, their lives were average in terms of divorce, alcohol use and suicide and they also tended to worry more than the general population.

Interestingly, people who do well on standard intelligence tests are also more likely to have a bigger ‘bias blindspot’—meaning they tend to be less likely to see their own flaws even though they can point them out in others.

A researcher at the University of Waterloo thinks life achievement is more closely linked with wisdom than innate intelligence. In his studies on the topic, Igor Grossmann, defines wisdom as the ability to make good, unbiased judgment.

In one experiment, volunteers were faced with different social dilemmas and a panel of psychologists examined their reasoning. Wisdom was determined by sound reasoning, less weakness to bias and volunteers who were willing to admit the limits of their knowledge. High scores related to better life satisfaction, relationship quality and lower anxiety. Wiser people from this experiment also lived longer.

Grossmann found IQ was not related to any of these things and also did not predict greater wisdom.

In further good news, Grossmann believes wisdom can be trained regardless of IQ. He says it is easier to abandon biases when we consider other people rather than ourselves—a simple trick is to rephrase problems using third person rather than first person and this often creates an emotional distance that reduces prejudice and leads to wiser arguments.

With further research, wisdom and judgment training could become a useful tool in our educational system. This kind of training has potential to help future generations be better equipped to make sound, rational choices in life regardless of IQ.

From my perspective, Grossmann’s work certainly has a ring of truth. There is no shortage of very smart people with all sorts of problems related to unwise personal choices. One problem I see is that there are so many factors influencing the choices we make, it is sometimes difficult to know where to start in terms of teaching wisdom. Also, wisdom may not be permanent or all pervasive. People can make wise choices in some areas of their lives and not in others.

One factor the average person may not be aware of is the influence of mood. The wisdom of choices made by people with mood disorders can vary widely depending on mood. When someone is manic they tend to feel invincible, full of confidence, and much more willing to take risks. They often make choices they would never make when their mood is normal. The opposite occurs when they are depressed. When depressed, people lack confidence, are indecisive and only see the negative side of everything.

So although wisdom and judgment training may have a role to play, it will have limitations.


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