Why smart people fail to be happy

“If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t happy?”

That’s Naval Ravikant’s challenge¹ to everyone bathing in the misery of their own intelligence. “Happiness is a choice,” he says; something you can work on, like your fitness, nutrition, or career.

Naval knows it’s a choice because he too had to make it for himself: “I was born poor and miserable, and I’m now pretty well off and very happy — and I worked at those.”

Naval also knows that’s an unpopular statement to make for two reasons:

  1. Some people are depressed at a molecular level and thus have a real, biological disadvantage.
  2. Some people don’t believe it’s possible to learn to be happy, and they don’t like being made responsible for it.

About 10% of the world’s population suffer from a mental health disorder of any kind.² That means for every one unhappy person with a chemical imbalance, there are nine who refuse to accept what science has proven countless times:³ You can learn to be happy — especially if you’re smart.

Thankfully, many of those smart and happy people have researched and compiled the most common obstacles to our fulfillment over the years. While there are many individual reasons, most of them can be aggregated into a few recurring themes.

The following is a fairly complete if not perfect list of those themes. Don’t use it as a set of welcome excuses; use it as a tool for self-analysis and growth.

There’s also a list of (re)sources at the end.

Here are the 5 most common reasons why smart people fail to be happy — and what they can do about it.

1. They overthink

Overthinking comes in endless flavors, but the three most common ones might be ruminating on the past, worrying about the future, and obsessing over solutions to present-day problems.

Dwelling on regrets is an attempt to mellow our fear of more regrets, which, of course, never works. When we’re anxious about the future, we hope to reduce uncertainty, which is impossible. And when we cycle through endless ideas on how to advance our career or look better in front of others, we refuse to acknowledge that the big questions we’re now mainly concerned with — “How do I find meaning? What makes me happy?” — can’t be answered in a day but only with slow, consistent, daily actions.

Some 50%-75% of adults overthink on the regular⁴, and it affects our productivity,⁵ creativity,⁶ energy, sleep, and even our eating habits.⁷ It also inhibits our learning⁸ and makes us age faster.⁹ Worst of all, we think we’re doing ourselves a favor.¹⁰ We think overthinking is smart, but it’s dangerous.

The number one remedy for overthinking is mindfulness. Many studies¹¹ have shown reduced rumination and worry in people who meditated regularly over the course of several weeks. Other solutions¹² include yoga, journaling¹³ and other self-reflection activities, and even outright scheduling time to worry.

Most of the time, we need action or rest. Thinking is important at big junctures in life, but from day to day, more thoughts often help little.

As a smart person, you probably like thinking because you’re good at it. Unfortunately, there’s not as much need for it as you would like. This may be hard to accept, but once you do, you can focus on doing other things that’ll ultimately make you happier.

2. They expect too much

Intelligent people can do various tasks at a fairly proficient level. Eventually, they get used to it and thus come to expect a high standard in themselves, others, and life — none of which is guaranteed but all of which inevitably leads to disappointment.

A simple, research-backed measure of happiness is to divide your reality by your expectations,¹⁴ so if your expectations are through the roof for whatever reason, you’ll never get ahead.

When you expect too much of yourself, you become too outcome-focused. If nothing less than the best will do, you’ll have a hard time appreciating anything in your life, from your achievements at work to your relationships to your hobbies.

You’ll also constantly criticize yourself for your mistakes. Intelligent people know how much they don’t know, and this only gets worse the more we learn! It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.¹⁵ One way to combat it is to occasionally look back and remind ourselves how far we’ve come while remembering it’s okay to not have all the answers.

When you expect too much of others, you’ll always feel like people are letting you down. If nothing they do is good enough, the gap between you and them will get bigger and bigger. Eventually, you’ll barely enjoy their company! Instead, look for the best in the people around you. Focus on their good traits and behaviors, and it’ll be easier to enjoy the time you spend together.

When you expect too much of life itself, you’ll become obsessed with the future, which goes back to overthinking. Intelligent people are often idealistic, and when that idealism clashes with reality, the result is disappointment. It’s easy to live in a perfect, imagined future. Making progress in reality with all its trivial problems is much harder, but, ultimately, that’s what’ll make us feel useful and, thus, happy.

Finally, smart people often feel like they should have more control over all of this, which is the worst expectation of them all. At the end of the day, we’re all humans. Tiny, flawed, limited humans. No one can change the world alone — let alone in a day — so always remember there’s much more you don’t control than you do, and that’s both normal and okay.

3. They push people away

High expectations are only one tool intelligent people use to isolate themselves from others — another common theme and happiness-blocker.

Humans are social beings. No one wants to always be alone forever, and while studies show that intelligent people tend to enjoy less social interaction than others,¹⁶ it does not mean they don’t require connections with people at all.

Another way smart people shut others out is to flip the expectation-lens: They perceive people’s expectations of them to be overly high and thus feel alienated. In reality, most people are so busy worrying about themselves, they barely have time to think about you. This is called the spotlight effect¹⁷ — it helps to remember you’re not in anyone’s but your own.

Smart people often feel misunderstood because they crave fewer but deeper connections. They couldn’t care less about small talk, but existential philosophy two minutes into the conversation? Sign them up!

For many people, highly intellectual topics are too heady most of the time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what it’s like to be an outsider. Everyone experiences that at some point in their life, so most of the time, smart people’s case of lone wolf syndrome is overblown. They make themselves more of an outsider than they actually are — there’s always common ground to be found if you look for it, and for smart people, this is actually quite easy to do.

This “me-against-the-world” mentality leads to other, even more destructive behaviors, like constantly competing against and comparing themselves to people, being overly skeptical and distrusting, and never opening up. If you never allow yourself to be vulnerable, you’ll never experience the compassion, reassurance, and understanding you so crave.

It’s easy for smart humans to give up not just on people as individuals but also the concept of “people” as a whole. This is tragic and in exact opposition to their goals not only because we all need at least some sense of social connection, but also because smart people feel happiest when they’re useful, when their intellectual aspirations serve some higher purpose — and what better cause to be useful to than the prosperity of other humans?

4. They sabotage themselves

At least when it comes to relying on their own intelligence, smart people are somewhat used to getting what they want. Therefore, they are taken by complete surprise when, especially for their biggest dreams and most important goals, their plans fail to come to fruition. They can’t think of an explanation — and that’s because there is none; they sabotaged themselves.

Smart people might skip the basics and thus let their ego make careless mistakes. They use arrogance to cover their deep-seated insecurity. “What if something comes up that I don’t know?” If you skip the essentials, at least subconsciously, you’ll know why you failed — and that’s reassuring. Don’t let your ego make you reckless. Don’t be above fundamentals. There’s real contentment in getting your hands dirty and building from the ground up.

Intelligent people allow themselves to get bored too easily. Everything worthwhile takes years of dedicated focus, but if you’re busy chasing new idea after new idea because hey, “you’re so good at everything,” you’ll never get the satisfaction of seeing something all the way through to the end.

The final and worst kind of self-sabotage is trying too hard to blend in. Intelligent people often let the world bully them for no reason other than their intelligence, which ultimately leads to them getting lost in a sea of feelings while not living based on their true values.¹⁸ Smart-shaming is a real problem, but intelligent people should also be smart enough to not give too much weight to those negative voices over their own ideals and principles.

When you feel particularly frustrated and can’t seem to find a good answer as to why things aren’t working, ask yourself if you’re looking for a tangible obstacle that’s not there. Could it be that the invisible barrier is one you set up in your own head? Self-sabotage is sneaky but not impossible to sniff out and turn off.

5. They devalue happiness altogether

Professor Raj Raghunathan from the University of Texas did a study¹⁹ in which he asked participants what three things they’d wish for from an all-powerful genie. Their responses? Money, success, and great relationships. When the researchers evaluated people’s true goals, however, happiness topped the list — and yet no one wished for happiness from the genie.

This example really hits the nail on the head: We think we’re too smart to “just” be happy. We think we must earn it, and so we feel bad even asking for it. People in the study didn’t believe it could be that simple, so they asked for happiness substitutes instead of the real thing.

The problem is if we consider happiness to be some complex product of many factors, in the long run, we’ll start valuing those factors over happiness itself. We get stuck chasing money, status, and power instead of focusing on activities we intrinsically value, like work we enjoy, hobbies we are passionate about, and being around people we like.

The more smart people obsess over these extrinsic motivators, the more likely it is they’ll keep spinning their wheels in an endless cycle of expectations and overthinking. This cycle eventually leads them to self-sabotage and self-isolation which, in turn, brings them to a desolate conclusion: Being happy is not important.

This is the sad end of a long line of misguided thought, and the only way to avoid it is to reflect on your happiness regularly, remember you have a right to it and proclaim it, and then prioritize the activities and people in your life that are most aligned with your true values.

Unlike Naval, I had the privilege of being born neither poor nor miserable. While I would always have considered myself pretty happy on average, I did feel the weight of intelligence at times, especially as a teenager.

The more I studied psychology as part of my work and education, the more I realized whatever weight there was at any given time was mostly a result of my habits, not my IQ. Therefore, if I changed my habits, I would become even happier — and I did.

That’s two examples of people who are both smart and happy you came across today. As a smart person, you probably don’t believe in coincidence, and so, maybe, you should start believing in this: You can be smart, and you can be happy. Intelligence and happiness are not mutually exclusive, and it’s not a tradeoff either.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and don’t give up until you’ve cracked your unique happiness puzzle. You’re smart and capable, after all. You can figure this out.

This article fist appeared on Medium.


[1] Joe Rogan Experience #1309 — Naval Ravikant

[2] Mental Health — Our World in Data

[3] Over nearly 80 years, Harvard study has been showing how to live a healthy and happy life — Harvard Gazette

[4] Women Who Think Too Much: How to break free of overthinking and reclaim your life — Susan Nolen-Hoeksema — Google Books

[5] Here’s What Happens To Your Body When You Overthink | HuffPost Life

[6] Relaxing learned constraints through cathodal tDCS on the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex | Scientific Reports

[7] Why stress causes people to overeat — Harvard Health

[8] The Overthinking Brain: A New Way to Look at Learning — NICABM

[9] New Player in Human Aging | Harvard Medical School

[10] Rethinking Rumination — Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Blair E. Wisco, Sonja Lyubomirsky, 2008

[11] The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style, and Affect | SpringerLink

[12] The Psychology Behind Chronic Overthinking (and How to Stop It), According to an Expert

[13] JMH — Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial | Smyth | JMIR Mental Health

[14] Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life — Manel Baucells, Rakesh Sarin — Google Books

[15] Dunning–Kruger effect — Wikipedia

[16] Country roads, take me home… to my friends: How intelligence, population density, and friendship affect modern happiness — PubMed

[17] Spotlight effect — Wikipedia

[18] 4 Things Happy People Don’t Do. Drop these bad habits and let your… | by Nick Wignall | Personal Growth | Medium

[19] If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? — Raj Raghunathan — Google Books