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.


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.


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.

Levi Funk

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.


@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?


"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.


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.


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


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.

Carl Clifford

"The less I seek my source for some definitive the closer I am to fine"
Indigo Girls


It is quite ignorant for you to assume intelligence implies lack of ignorance :)
We can actually have two parallel studies: happiness V ignorance and happiness V intelligence.
Money definitely cant be the only criterion for happiness though it does play a small part. Ignorant people are less troubled by problems around them because by definition they aren't aware of them. Intelligent people are unsatisfied by mundane conversations. Similarly most entertainment like TV shows or movies are unlikely to satisfy them either. So there is a case to be made for their them being less happy.
I would argue ignorant, dumb yet rich folks are the happiest (Paris Hilton, anyone?)


Ignorance and Intelligence, ironically (a deep irony here), aren't the same thing. Ignorance of what? String Theory

Taleb is a prime example of someone in favor of systematic ignorance....not reading a newspaper can make you happier (and a better investor). I think he's a pretty smart guy, myself.

Warren Buffett is another, depending on what domain of ignorance you are looking at. Reads lots of newspapers, avoids computers.

Scott Supak

Since ignorance, as others here have already noted, carries the connotation of lack of learning, rather than lack of reasoning ability, perhaps the vocabulary data is more to the point (larger vocabulary correlating to more education). In that case, it looks like there is a little more unhappiness at the low end of the scale.

While it seems that income, or wealth, is the better indicator for happiness, it does seem to follow that, at the least, those with the least income (education) have the most unhappiness.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I'm beginning to realize that a lot of people just aren't very good at judging their own level, or amount, of happiness. When pressed on the point, they will often admit that they were most happy when money came in, and least happy when it didn't. This blog even had a guest post recently that noted how money acts like cocaine on our brains, and how lack or loss of it results in the fight or flight response (which certainly feels like unhappiness).

From a personal point of view, knowing more about the world has limited the amount of happiness I can feel. Any time I feel better about anything, I think of all the injustice and pain in the world, and it takes me down a notch. Perhaps not knowing about all these bad things would allow me to be happier a little longer each time, but judging the amount of happiness in there is a tough task indeed.

I'm often told to cheer up, that at least I'm not poor, pregnant, and giving birth in a tree during a flood (the example my wife and I actually got from the news once). I find that a very hard piece of knowledge to use as a path to happiness. The fact that any human would ever have to endure such poverty and circumstance is hardly an excuse to celebrate, and even as a comparison, gives me little satisfaction that I'm better off than the worst case scenario. While it might reduce my unhappiness, I can hardly say that knowing I'm better off than most makes me feel happy.


Tariq Mahmood

I agree, ignorance is related to lack of knowledge and not intelligence. A person ignorant of hazards is not likely to be a happy one. He or she will be in a state of bliss till the moment they confront the hazard.

Happiness or otherwise, is the likliness of one's state in the future, near as well as distant. In case we are aware of what lies ahead we are not likely to be happy - towards the end. Is it not said, he laughs best who laughs last.

Eric M. Jones

If you are intelligent enough to understand what is going on, how can you possible be happy?

Well, I subscribe to Buddhist notions of happiness, which don't require any dumbing down to achieve a joyful state. But this solution is probably not going to take over the world anytime soon since it requires time and effort and is "foreign"--Whereas, Jesus spoke English.



Apoorva Patel

You unintentionally made the case the money buys happiness.


Why don't we start by actually finishing the full saying, "Ignorance is bliss, when it is folly to be wise." The idea that being ignorant is more likely to cause you to be happy because you have some perverted idea that less knowledge means less worry, where more knowledge is more likely to help prevent minor problems from becoming major problems.


@8, or after learning the wife that you love very much have cheated on you, and that you were going to keep loving her anyways, in which case ignorance would have been relatively more blissful.


"The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel."

-- Horace Walpole


This post reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: "It is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." - John Stuart Mill

I agree with the above posters that intelligence does not equal knowledge. However, smart people usually enjoy being intellectually stimulated and are more likely to pursue and gather knowledge than those less intelligent.
Also, I've seen that intelligent people are less likely to make financial mistakes, which lead to stress, anxiety and unhappiness.


The vast majority of those who generalize -- money makes you happy -- are generally wrong.