I saw a gumbuster today. Gumbusters clean pavements with high pressure steam machines that can also be used to remove graffiti from walls. Decade-old chewing gums and racist slogans on the street disappear like earl-grey tea and chocolate cookies at an AA meeting. The guy seemed pretty happy while he was busting away. I saw him by coincidence, when I was in the passenger seat of a guy from work. The guy from work does research in evolutionary ecology and speciation genomics for a living. Quite a contrast. I wondered if he was happy too. He was definitely successful, but didn’t look as content as the gumbuster in that small moment in time.  

My colleague is a scientist, which is pretty exciting and must mean he has got some brains to him. But science also brings with a lifestyle that I would describe as somewhat stressful and restless, perhaps even lonely. After ten long years of studying, scientists are only offered one or two-year contracts at a time. These jobs are likely to be in different countries, which means that they live like a nomad well into their forties. They are often far away from their families and only have short-lived friendships, until they finally published enough scientific articles to be taken seriously in their field. And it’s not just science. Most clever people hold high-demanding jobs that come with certain compromises. 

Successful people are daily faced with deadlines, competition and extra hours. It’s called work stress. Apparently, the more college-educated you are, the more likely you are to suffer from work stress. On top of that, you will have more career options, and having too much choice is stressful on its own. I’m wondering, wouldn’t it be easier to be less ambitious? I’m not saying that the gumbuster is dumb, but let’s generalize that labour-intensive jobs require less brain. Potato farmers, construction workers, bus drivers, name it. They don’t seem to suffer from too much ambition and appear quite content with their daily routine. Could it be that smart people are less happy because they are overachievers and never satisfied? 

To answer this question we must first define what stupid and smart really mean. Politically correct would be to say low IQ people (of 70 or so) and high IQ people (of 120 or so). But for the ease of the story, let’s just call them stupid and smart. Then, what exactly is happiness? This is a bit more complicated. There is a materialistic kind of happiness (having stuff), an utilitarian kind of happiness (feeling content), and an eudaimonic kind of happiness (being creative). To simplify things let’s leave out the first one, because the correlation between happiness and having stuff soon fades after the basic needs are provided for: food, shelter, sanitation, clothing, and a big ass flat screen tv. Let’s presume that the gumbuster has everything his heart desires for now. 

To get back to our question: if happiness were a game, who would win? Smart people overanalyse shit and try to find explanations and solutions to everything. It’s like a tiny hurricane is constantly going through their brain. A stupid person’s brain is more like still waters, that don’t run so deep. On holiday, smart people would want to do stuff all the time. They get restless sitting by the pool without at least a book. Stupid people can just stare at the pool and be content. Smart people read the news and concern themselves with social and political issues. Stupid people only read the sport’s section. Smart people struggle sleeping because they overthink too much. Stupid people are almost in a state of sleep already. Smart people fill their weekends up entirely to have it be as diverse and productive as possible. Stupid people can just watch a movie. 

But there is a flipside. Stupid people struggle with exams and have to study the whole night through in order to pass. Smart people can just watch a movie. Stupid people have to make lists to memorize what they have to do or buy every day. Smart people simply don’t forget stuff. Stupid people struggle with math and can’t calculate how much money they owe other people. Smart people can just pay the bill and go home. Stupid people don’t know how to fix their geyser or car engine when it breaks. Smart people read the manual and consider it done. Stupid people don’t know what to do with themselves when the internet is down. Smart people can read a book or write a book, go see an artist or become an artist, listen to a symphony or create a symphony.  

It seems like both parties are fighting their own battles. Perhaps stupid people are happier when it comes to feeling content, whereas smart people are happier when you look at being creative. Still, an advantage of being smart is that you can act stupid, while stupid people can’t pretend to be smart. Smart people can even drink themselves stupid for a night and compare, whereas stupid people will never know what it’s like to be smart. But then again, we say that ignorance is bliss. If you don’t know what’s going on around you, it’s impossible to worry about it either. And if you don’t understand people surrounding you, they can’t upset you as well. Stupid people also tend to overestimate their own competence, whereas smart people always criticize themselves. So yes, it looks like it’s a tie. 

But if we want to be real smart about this stupid question, we should ask the scientists. Apparently, research has shown that people with an intellect below the average (<90) are less satisfied with life than people with an intellect above the average (>110). It’s because most labour-intensive jobs will eventually take a physical toll. Another study showed that people with low intelligence generally have a lower income as well, which influences the mental health and can cause unhappiness. So although being smart can be a stressful ordeal, you’re better off than being stupid. Luckily, scientists also said that being stupid is still better than being unemployed. Apparently, unemployment has long-term effects on a person’s wellbeing even after regaining a job. So way to go gumbuster!   

There is also a new branch in science called positive psychology. The theory is that you can become happy simply by thinking about positive stuff. So if you don’t have a big ass flat screen tv yet, just think about one while forcing down a smile. If you pay your rent by mobbing floors in public toilets, smell somebody else’s suite and think optimistic. If you are incapable of understanding board games or what the big bang theory is all about, sing the alphabet and stay mindful. If you didn’t have sex for 14 months and still live with your 70-year old mother because you got fired being a cashier at the local supermarket, be grateful and remain positive. We are as happy as we make our minds up to be. If you look for things to complain about in life, you will find them. If instead you look for something to be happy about, you will find that too. Whether you are an evolutionary ecologist or a gumbuster: there is hope is for everyone.