Whichever Intelligence Makes You Happy

From Intelligence to Psychological Well-Being: There Is a Path… or Two

The value of intelligence as a substantial factor of success and survival is beyond question: more intelligent people do better at school, achieve higher professional status, have higher incomes, and can hope to avoid a number of health risks and live longer.

However, assuming that what one ultimately wants in life is not just success by any external standards, but an inner sense of happiness and fulfillment, a question does arise: Can our intellect help us get there? In other words, besides supporting better educational, professional, and even health outcomes, does intelligence also promote one’s psychological well-being?

On the most general level, this was the issue we dealt with in our recent study “Whichever Intelligence Makes You Happy: The Role of Academic, Emotional, and Practical Abilities in Predicting Psychological Well-Being,” published in Personality and Individual Differences. And while the issue itself is not a new one, we did reformulate/specify it along two lines, thus arriving at some new insights.

Which Intelligence May Lead to Well-Being?

First, we started out with the idea that intelligence is not one, but a family of abilities, bound by a common name (i.e., conceptually related) yet operating as separate entities (i.e., empirically distinguishable). In other words, for anything to be called intelligence, it has to be about figuring out relationships and going beyond the obvious, to that which is inferred and concluded; however, experience tells us that the likelihood of figuring something out is largely dependent on the content or type of problem presented.

A large class of our daily tasks or problems will yield to the sort of logical-mathematical and verbal reasoning that is captured by traditional IQ tests and stimulated by education, i.e., to academic intelligence. Yet, other problems will be solved only in as much as one is able to grasp the rules of emotional functioning in self and in interpersonal relations — i.e., to employ what Mayer and Salovey have termed emotional intelligence — and still others will be resolved to the extent that one is able to transfer any knowledge one has (about oneself, others, or a task) to the here-and-now of an actual, real-life situation, i.e., to demonstrate what Sternberg calls practical intelligence.

Distinguishing between these three sets of abilities — academic, emotional, and practical — we wondered how likely each of them is to contribute to psychological well-being. Of note, there already had been some research on the relationship between academic intelligence (IQ) and happiness, as well as between emotional intelligence and subjective well-being (as a composite of life satisfaction and positive affect), both cases suggesting a positive effect of the respective set of cognitive abilities on the chosen outcome.

However, the literature provided no information about the independent contribution and relative strength of the three types of intelligence in predicting broadly-defined psychological well-being (encompassing not only positive affect/happiness and life satisfaction, but also more “existentialist” aspects of wellness such as a developed sense of autonomy, connectedness, and purpose in life). Nor did it offer any insights into which of their components were (most) responsible for the effect.

It is precisely on these matters that our study was able to shed some light. First, we found that academic and emotional, but not practical intelligence, each predicted a share of individual differences in psychological well-being, together explaining about one-third of the variation in the outcome variable. Second, our component-level analysis revealed that it was non-verbal inductive reasoning from the domain of academic intelligence, and the two “strategic” components of emotional intelligence — the ability to understand and the ability to manage emotions — that actually contributed to the prediction, with knowledge about managing emotions as the strongest single predictor of psychological well-being.

How Can Intelligence Get You There?

Our second amendment to the above-stated general question concerned the path(s) by which the three types of intelligence may possibly influence psychological well-being. If academic, emotional, and practical abilities have any effects on the respective outcome, are these direct (i.e., do we use a particular kind of intelligence to think through and solve our “well-being problems”) or indirect (i.e., do we use our intelligence to achieve other advantages, which then contribute to our sense of well-being)?

In the case of academic intelligence, although a direct effect would have been conceivable (e.g., the deeper one’s understanding of how things are related, the stronger one’s sense of mastery and meaning), prior studies rather suggested an indirect one, involving socioeconomic status: In other words, the path from academic intelligence to psychological well-being was supposed to lead through the multiple socioeconomic advantages, experiences of educational/economic success, and better material resources, which, on the one hand, are related to a higher IQ, and, on the other, serve to promote well-being.

The case, however, seemed to be different for the nonacademic abilities. Including capacities such as “the ability to reflectively regulate emotions to achieve more adaptive and reinforcing mood states, handle relationships, and promote personal growth” (from Mayer and Salovey’s definition of the Managing Emotions component of emotional intelligence) or the practical know-how relevant for achieving personal goals (cf. Wagner and Sternberg’s definition of practical intelligence), emotional and practical abilities were assumed to have a direct effect on psychological well-being. In essence, this was confirmed by our data (excluding the part referring to practical intelligence), which were well-represented by a model including an indirect path from academic intelligence through socioeconomic status to psychological well-being and a direct path from emotional intelligence to the given outcome.

In other words, our results indicated that academic intelligence leads to greater contentment with oneself and life primarily by enabling one to acquire the social status and financial means which ensure better opportunities and quality of life; at the same time, they provided support for the theoretical proposition that emotional intelligence, particularly knowledge about managing emotions, could itself be a vehicle of psychological well-being as encompassing self-growth, self-acceptance, and autonomy.

Who May Feel Good About These Results? 

Overall, the above-presented findings mean good news for both academic and emotional intelligence – in fact, it’s also good news for intellect in general as a way of achieving personal well-being. In the case of academic intelligence, our results show the abilities hereby referred to as non-academic in a literal sense, can be well employable for resolving out-of-school and personal issues to one’s satisfaction. In other words, these findings serve to rebut concerns about the limited real-life utility of academic intelligence and align with the growing data demonstrating that the reasoning abilities captured by IQ-tests predict long-term and broadly relevant life-outcomes.

Yet, the findings may entail even more good news for emotional intelligence, a construct still seeking full acceptance into the family of cognitive abilities. Not only did the disputed ability to process emotional information add to the prediction of psychological well-being above academic intelligence, but it related to this outcome precisely through that element which should by definition be its best predictor (i.e., the ability to manage emotions).

In terms of application, this solidifies the ground for introducing the assessment of emotional intelligence in certain contexts and for attempts to train it, particularly the ability to moderate negative emotions and enhance positive ones. As for practical intelligence, although this construct didn’t prove as useful in our study (most probably due to measurement issues), its proponent, Robert Sternberg, may still be pleased by seeing the results support his idea about the importance of balancing different abilities for real-life success. Apparently, it is a combination of “hard-core” inductive reasoning and the “soft skills” of understanding emotions and knowing how to manage them that could set one off on the path to well-being.

What Is Getting in the Way of (These) Researchers’ Complacency?

As is the trend in science, having arrived at some answers regarding the effect(s) of intelligence(s) on well-being, we find ourselves consumed by new questions: For instance, would our findings, obtained in a country that may be qualified as “developing” and “in transition” (Serbia), also hold true in other populations, particularly as they pertain to the mediating role of socioeconomic status on the path from academic intelligence to well-being? Further, could it be that other sociodemographic factors, e.g., marital/partnership status, intervene on the path from emotional intelligence to the same outcome?

While the list could go on to numerous other questions, we will end here with the one that is currently capturing our attention: It concerns the predictive validity of emotional intelligence–again, vis-à-vis psychological well-being — once the basic personality traits (i.e., the so-called Big Five) enter the picture. Contrary to what was previously established, our preliminary analyses indicate that emotional intelligence may still have a part to play in this constellation of predictors; what exactly its role is and whether this has to do with gender are questions that await further scrutiny.

These findings are described in the article entitled Whichever intelligence makes you happy: The role of academic, emotional, and practical abilities in predicting psychological well-being, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual DifferencesThis work was conducted by Ana Altaras Dimitrijevic and Zorana Jolić Marjanović from the University of Belgrade, and Aleksandar Dimitrijević from the International Psychoanalytic University.