Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

A regular blog reader, Mitch Kosowski, sent along an interesting question: “Is ignorance truly bliss? Are people with lower intelligence happier than those with higher intelligence?”

Let’s start with a quick literature review. Here are the findings reported by Simpson, L. (2001):


Lisa Simpson: “As intelligence goes up, happiness goes down. See, I made a graph. I make lots of graphs.” [The Simpsons, episode 257]

Despite her formidable unhappiness, I don’t think Lisa is right on this one. My reasoning is simple: more intelligent people tend to earn higher incomes, and we know that people with higher incomes are more likely to be happy.

But that’s theory; let’s crunch some numbers.

The General Social Survey asks about happiness and also contains a simple vocabulary test, which we’ll use as a proxy for intelligence. While this is a pretty rough proxy, I’ll rely on the Rumsfeld defense, analyzing the data we’ve got, rather than the data we want. I simply divided people into the top, middle, and bottom thirds of the population, in terms of their vocabulary scores:


There’s also a small reasoning-based test:


Armed with these data, Lisa can make more graphs, and she’ll discover that those with stronger vocabularies or stronger analytic reasoning skills are more likely to be very happy, and less likely to be unhappy.

These differences were also statistically significant. By contrast, much of the existing literature finds no statistically significant relationship between individual happiness and intelligence. But the failure of small-scale studies to find statistically significant results likely reflects the fact that small-scale studies can’t verify much. (My analysis includes over 14,000 people; existing studies range from analyzing a couple of dozen to a couple of thousand people.)

Even so, these happiness differences look small. But I don’t immediately conclude that the happiness-intelligence link is weak; instead, these weak(ish) results may reflect a weak link between actual and measured intelligence. The coarseness of my intelligence measures means that there are likely some very intelligent and very happy people mis-categorized as moderately intelligent and very happy. If we could sort these people out, I think it’s pretty likely that we would find that there is an even stronger relationship between intelligence and happiness. (Hint for econ students: there’s an interesting paper waiting to be written on this.)

But this doesn’t answer the harder question: What creates a relationship between (measured) intelligence and (measured) happiness? Are those who are lucky enough to be born intelligent also lucky enough to be born happier? Do happy folks elicit greater attention from their teachers? Or does the sort of intelligence that is created by education also enable us to successfully pursue happiness? If it’s the latter, then perhaps these data point to yet another reason to invest in education.

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  1. Jesse says:

    This is assuming ignorance is the opposite of intelligence, but it is more like the opposite of knowledge. Imagine how happy you would be if you were intelligent enough to process available information but, given a lack of knowledge of the world, you came to a valid conclusion that everything is ok. Bliss! This is why the grass appears greener – not for lack of intelligence, but lack of knowledge of the neighbor’s grass.

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  2. Ezzie says:

    A non-scientific observation of the mere 25 years of my life tells me that while ignorance is not bliss, those who think too much tend to be less blissful. This has less to do with intelligence and more to do with wisdom.

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  3. Levi Funk says:

    I think this raises to question the measure of happiness. By simply asking a person “How happy are you?”, their answer is relative to their environment. If there is any correlation between intelligence and income, we can assume poor individuals are more likely to be ignorant. Assuming people of similar status/income live near each other, then one’s opinion of one’s happiness is relative to those of similar status/income. Therefore one may say s/he is “very happy”, but is comparing this to the happiness level of a miserable bunch. I think a different measurement of happiness needs to be adopted. My prediction would be that this would further exaggerate the difference between happiness amongst the ignorant and intelligent.

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  4. Kirilius says:

    @1 – exactly my thoughts!

    This whole material assumes that intelligence is the opposite of ignorance. But ignorance is more related with knowledge (the lack of it) than with intelligence (the ability to reason).

    Therefore I would appreciate a study that tries to establish a link between happiness and the level of knowledge.

    However the knowledge level would be harder to define. If I know that the capital of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur for example, would that make me more knowledgeable (less ignorant) than someone that hasn’t a clue that such country exists but knows all about the life of bees?

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  5. Mike says:

    “My reasoning is simple: more intelligent people tend to earn higher incomes”

    So… find a way to factor it out? These numbers are useless, otherwise.

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  6. L.Benson says:

    People that rank higher on vocab and reasoning tests are likely to have come from wealthier families to begin with, as wealthier children are much more likely to have the developmental opportunities that will allow them to do well in school, and have access to wide vocabularies. The way these numbers work out, happiness, even as it is related to intelligence, is inherited on some level.

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  7. frankenduf says:

    i utterly agree with Jesse- ignorance is bliss is a contextual truism- if you don’t know a mack truck is bearing down on you, it’s easier to be blissful- i think this distinction is brought to a head in the sci-fi plot, where people are given a chance to know when they are going to die- most would probably opt not to know, following the ignorance is bliss dictum, but the real existential challenge is to choose to know, then get what happiness you may accordingly

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  8. Lee says:

    Ditto for what Mike said: the question is whether *all things being equal* ignorance is bliss. If you don’t factor out the bliss-inducing higher incomes of more intelligent people, you cannot determine the extent to which ignorance causes bliss.

    I suspect that general ignorance is bliss, at least in the sense that the person is unaware of additional reasons to be unhappy. A person who is ignorant about, say, global warming or the long-term insolvency of Social Security would become less happy after learning the facts.

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