The Myth of the Happy Idiot

Are You Too Smart to be Happy?

intelligence and happiness

There’s an unspoken, but often assumed belief that there is an incompatibility between intelligence and happiness. This notion is most aptly conveyed in sitcoms.

You have the overly optimistic and bubbly characters that are loved but not necessarily respected like Edith on All in the Family.

Then there are the exceptionally intelligent characters that are usually played as grumpy, intolerant and pessimistic, like Dr. Gregory House on the show House.

Where did we get this idea that anyone who’s a little too happy must be mentally impaired and the intelligent, are naturally unhappy?

Ignorance is Bliss?

It stems from the well-know phrase “ignorance is bliss”. Of course ignorance and intelligence are not necessarily interchangeable; but there is an assumption that the intelligent person is normally educated.

A further clue revealed itself while I was reading the book The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. He wrote:

"All of us have worries. We worry because we are intelligent beings. Intelligence predicts, that is its essence; the same intelligence that allows us to plan, hope, imagine, and hypothesize also allows us to worry and anticipate negative outcomes."

I love this book, it’s one of my favorites, but perhaps this passage explains how this idea of “happy idiot” moved into our consciousness. We do have the capacity to anticipate glorious futures generating feelings of hope and excitement. We are also capable of imaging nightmarish outcomes producing feelings of worry and dread.

The idea of “happy idiot” came about by the belief that anyone who is too happy must not be intelligent enough to see potential problems. Or, if we’re too Pollyannaish, that we’ll be blindsided by difficulties because we couldn’t imagine a negative outcome. But is our only choice to either be a miserable genius or a happy idiot?

Happiness Does Not Mean Carelessness.

I’m a golfer, and like most players, I play best when I’m at peace and feeling fearless. (Most golfers fear the self-inflicted torture over an errant shot.) One day I decided to experiment and deliberately not care where the ball went. I was curious to see what would happen.

As you might have guessed, it did not go well. But what happened? I was happy! I wasn’t afraid! Why didn’t this peaceful and bold perspective improve my round?

Upon reviewed my game, I noticed I didn’t go through my normal pre-shot routine. I just walked up to the ball and swung. I stopped paying attention to my lie, club selection, and distance calculations. Like many people, I had unconsciously equated fearlessness with carelessness. The next time I played I followed my normal routine and swung freely. The results were much better.

Optimism Does Not Mean Lack of Planning.

My ex-husband is a brilliant project manager. He oversees very complex, multi-million dollar projects. Part of his job is to anticipate problems and negative outcomes. As he puts it, he sees everything that could go wrong and develops contingency plans. Yet, he is incredibly optimistic about the future success of his projects.

They seem like contradictions but they’re not. It is sometimes smart to image the worst and make plans. Being able to see possible problems in the future can be very useful. But doing so doesn’t put you into a never-ending state of an eternal pessimism.

You can build a nest egg AND be optimistic about your financial future. You can buy road-side assistance insurance AND anticipate a joyous, problem-free road trip. You can come up with a Plan B and still be optimistic about Plan A.

Ignorance may be a path to bliss, but it’s not the only path. You can truly be a happy genius.


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No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

- Albert Einstein

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

- Abraham Lincoln