I’ve been wondering lately about the link between intelligence and meaning. People with high intelligence tend to adopt a critical attitude towards the world, and avoid relying on positive illusions. While these skills gain you accolades in school, are they really valued in today’s world? Anecdotally, I have spoken with a lot of extremely bright people who are feeling a profound lack of meaning in this current climate of divisiveness and lack of nuanced, integrative thinking in public discourse.
What does the science say about this? Unfortunately, there just isn’t much systematic work on this topic, as most of the research on intellectual giftedness is conducted on children. When intelligence is studied among adults, the emphasis tends to be on markers of achievement, such as occupational success or publicly recognized accomplishments. So the best I can do in this article is attempt to draw out some general patterns based on the small bits of evidence that exist.
In this recent article for my column, I reported on a recent study that reported a positive correlation between IQ and well-being among the general population. However, like most things in life, the devil is in the details. The authors of the study graciously provided me with further data showing that if you split up well-being into different factors, the relationship between IQ and “Satisfaction with Circumstances and Relationships” was over three times higher than the correlation between IQ and “Sense of Direction and Fulfillment.”
This finding highlights the critical difference between happiness and meaning in life. While happiness and life satisfaction has more to do with getting what you want and feeling good, meaning is more related to developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences.
The more I looked into the literature, the more I realized that the field has focused on “eminence” and “happiness” as important outcomes among intellectually gifted individuals, almost completely ignoring meaning. And the number of studies that even attempt to look at intellectually gifted adults is extremely thin. As Andrzej Sekowski and Malgorzata Siekansa note, “among the numerous publications on the gifted that have appeared within the last 100 years, merely 13-14.2% deal with adults.”
I found one notable study, however. Edith Pollet and Tatjana Schnell recruited three groups of participants from Austria and Germany. Their giftedness as potential group consisted of 198 members of Mensa. Membership in Mensa is granted to individuals who score at the 98th percentile or higher on recognized standardized measures of intelligence.* Their giftedness as achievement group consisted of 141 Austrian academic award winners, who received academic accolades in high school, college, and at the doctoral level. Finally, for their control group, they recruited a random sample of 136 Austrian residents who neither were labeled as “intellectually gifted” nor were academically high achieving. Across all three groups they assessed levels of meaningfulness and other aspects of their lives.
Their most striking finding was substantially diminished levels of meaningfulness and subjective well-being among the giftedness as potential group compared to both the giftedness as achievement group and the control group. Also, in comparison to the giftedness as achievement group, the giftedness as potential group reported more demotivating experiences in school, and they perceived work as much less meaningful and joyful.
The researchers also found that the giftedness as potential group followed a different path to meaning compared to the giftedness as achievement group. Among the giftedness as potential group, generativity (engagement for the greater good and coming generations) was the strongest predictor of meaning in life. In contrast, meaningful work was the most central predictor of meaning in life among those in the giftedness as achievement group. Interestingly, self-compassion emerged as a significant contributor to meaning and subjective well-being for both groups: both gifted groups benefited much more from self-compassion than their control counterparts.
These findings have a number of implications that I think add some important nuance to our understanding of the link between meaning and intellectual giftedness. For one, they support the distinction between two different conceptualizations of giftedness: giftedness as potential and giftedness as achievement.* Indeed, the current National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC) definition of giftedness includes both conceptualizations:
“Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains.”
To be sure, aptitude is highly correlated with competence. But these correlations are far from perfect, and for some practical purposes it’s worth distinguishing between aptitude and competence.** For one, as I’ve argued, the distinction acknowledges that many people are capable of much higher levels of competence than would be predicted based on their IQ scores.
But more relevant to the current study, the distinction also recognizes that these different conceptualizations of giftedness can be related to different ways of experiencing giftedness and bringing it to fruition. As Tatjana Schnell, an author of the study, told me: “While some [intellectually gifted individuals] feel appreciated at school, manage to find a job that fits them well, are happy and fulfilled, others don’t get that appreciation at school, don’t find their place in society/work, and are less happy and fulfilled.”
Having high levels of cognitive complexity doesn’t assure that one will actually be motivated to utilize their cognitive ability. High achievement is more likely to be associated with high levels of motivation. Also, while high achievers may be more motivated by outward markers of success, the results of this study suggest that those with extremely high levels of intelligence are more motivated to simply create something of lasting value to the world.
The self-compassion findings are also relevant here, because many children with high intelligence may feel too much pressure to live up to societal expectations based on their label as “gifted.” As Carole and Charles Holahan note, being labeled “gifted” might cause unrealistically high expectations of success, and this may foster self-devaluations as a consequence. This pressure may make it more likely that bright individuals will put too much pressure on themselves to live up to their potential. Cultivating more self-compassion may be a protective factor against these pressures. The Holahans suggest that helping gifted individuals “to appreciate and accept their achievements within a balanced and realistic view” might increase their self-compassion, thus increasing meaning and happiness in life.
I believe this is a very important topic for further research and discussion in our society. Martin Voracek found a positive correlation between national IQ and the national suicide rate in 85 countries. Also, his reanalysis of the famous Terman Genetic Study of Genius found a lifetime suicide mortality four times that of the general population among a participant pool with an average IQ of 151. Interestingly, the Holahans also reanalyzed Terman’s data and found that participants who learned at a younger age that they were part of the Terman study on “genius” were less likely to believe that they had lived up to their intellectual abilities at midlife and were less likely to have high levels of psychological well-being at age 80.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that intelligence across the full range of scores is generally related to maladjustment. On the contrary, I think there is good evidence that intelligence serves as a protective factor against life’s many inevitable vicissitudes. However, I do think the evidence is suggestive that we fail our most cognitively talented students when we set them up for adult expectations that they must be high achieving, or we don’t help them find their own unique path to self-actualization and contribution to society. In today’s polarized world, with a general lack of nuance and open and honest critical discussions, I also think a very large number of intellectually gifted children are growing up knowing they are bright, but wondering: what for?
* Of course, a major limitation of this study is the preselection of the gifted populations. It’s likely that members of MENSA have their own unique struggles that motivate them to seek out membership and connect with like-minded individuals. While this is a real limitation of the study, at least it’s a real attempt to look at the understudied population of intellectually gifted adults, a population that is hard to study because they are statistically rare in the general population. After all, for a non-preselected sample, you would have to administer IQ tests to 5,000 people to attain a modest sample of 100 people in the top 98th percentile!
** For an alternate perspective, see this essay by Scott Peters, in which he argues that the bright vs. gifted distinction is unnecessary when it comes to choosing academic interventions for gifted students.