I Don't Know
April 14, 2019 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Is there a term, or a body of knowledge, or a study, or a truth, that people who are aware they are less educated and unworldly have depression and decreased satisfaction with life?

Lately I've been reading some articles that are written by intellectuals about intellectuals. Often the subject of these articles - the intellectuals -- are born to intellectuals. Sometimes they are the seventh child to a factory worker. All of the time they have a great intellect and curiosity and have been passionately reading and studying and querying for their entire lives.

It has me thinking about intellectual ability and knowledge and understanding of how the world works and life satisfaction in general.

I am aware that there is a huge chasm (am I using this word correctly?) between my life compared to the elites and intellectuals of the world. I am also aware that just because you are a genius, or an intellectual, or a philosopher, does not guarantee contentment or intact mental health, or what have you. There are some intellectuals who suicide themselves, but I think it's rare.

I have always been aware that I am poorly educated and am missing the knowledge or understanding to speak intelligently about most things. I have a surface knowledge of some things but no real depth or understanding. My intellect is average, most likely below average.

I do think that smart people --people who are highly educated and have a understanding of philosophy, history, sociology, culture, politics, science, literature, and economics, etc. have a greater understanding of people and how the world works and therefore have a richer and more nuanced way of seeing the world and life. Perhaps they have greater life satisfaction? An increased satisfaction from a passion and interest in a subject? Less petty problems and grievances? More sophistication and maturity?

It seems like less educated or less intelligent people like myself are aware they are missing out on this knowledge, are less cultured, and therefore there is a great disconnect, or mourning or angst, that they don't have the ability or knowledge to see what others see and know.

Is this a thing? Is there something I can read that explains this?
posted by loveandhappiness to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I am also aware that just because you are a genius, or an intellectual, or a philosopher, does not guarantee contentment or intact mental health, or what have you.

Oof! Perhaps indeed the opposite!

“Intellectuals” are usually as such due to (like you say) family/religious tradition or just an independent compulsion to understand the world, which it sounds like you have. They have no special comforts available to them, IMO, and perhaps spend more time ruminating and thinking about horrible truths.

Don’t be so hard on yourself; if you’re interested in something, read about it. If you feel like you don’t know what’s going on in the text... no one does, at first. It’s meant to be grappled with for a lifetime!
posted by stoneandstar at 6:46 PM on April 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Look, my Dad was educated beyond stuff, a teacher and an educator. He was born in a small house in Macwahoc, Maine, and his Dad was a principal. His grandfather was a laborer, who came down from New Brunswick, Canada, to get a job. That guy's father came from Ireland, also to get a job.

I grew up reading lots of books. I had the leisure of doing so, and a lot of encouragement. It was a hop-skip-and-a-jump from my laborer great-grandfather to my educated father, who went to Trinity and became a teacher.

You're not missing anything, except a desire to learn and reading books. No one is better than you. You can always learn more, and there is always more to learn.

You have to pick something you like. Poetry, Literature, Art, Geology, and explore that for yourself. You don't need a degree.

English and poetry was a big deal in my family, so I learned a lot of that, but that was due to my Dad quoting a lot of it. It's either good or bad, depending on your outlook.

One thing that helped me when I was a teenager, I read a lot of Greek plays, they were old college books from my Dad's school days. You can find them online now. The old school people think knowledge in the Greek classics is good, I think the legends and learning about them is good.

Don't worry too much, and take your time, you are okay the way you are right now.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:56 PM on April 14, 2019 [24 favorites]

I think it is more likely that depression causes people to feel inadequate than that inadequacy causes people to feel depressed.

There are a lot of things tangled up in your question—regardless of intellectual ability, people raised in great privilege tend to have stereotypical markers of sophistication, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily sophisticated about life or people, just about things. I have not noticed any correlation between level of education *or* level of intellect and knowledge and understanding of how people work, how to empathize with others, how to listen to other people and grasp the spoken and unspoken things they try to communicate.

And I promise you the answer to all these questions
Perhaps they have greater life satisfaction? . . . Less petty problems and grievances? More sophistication and maturity?
is No. I do think you are right on track that people with “passion and interest in a subject” have greater life satisfaction, but in my experience there is no correlation between intellectual ability and passion/interest. I find that has more to do with internal drive and work ethic than anything else. These factors are missing in your question but in my experience they’re the dividing line between people who are satisfied in life and people who aren’t. And it can be passion for anything, not just intellectual things. Lacking passion and zest for life is a symptom of depression, which brings me back to my first point—that these feelings may be caused by depression rather than causing it.
posted by sallybrown at 7:28 PM on April 14, 2019 [26 favorites]

Well, in case it helps, there is the Dunning-Kruger effect which is the opposite of what you are asking for. That is where people who have learned a lot about a topic underestimate what they have left to learn and so think they are experts. It seems from your questions that you are humble and modest and unlikely to suffer from that.

Also, there is a quote from Cicero that "Aristotle says that all men of genius are melancholy." which is also the opposite of what you are looking for.

And there is Impostor Syndrome where people doubt their own abilities and think they have achieved their current success and position just by good luck.

Well, to avoid getting in trouble for not answering your question, here's some links that I hope come closer to addressing your question about education, culture and intelligence:
  • Billionaire Charlie Munger has said that (among other things) it is more valuable to be consistently not stupid rather than sometimes very smart.
  • Ryan Holiday's book "Ego is the Enemy" where he says that arrogance and egotism often ruin the careers of gifted or privileged people
  • Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers" claimed somewhat controversially that not only the wealth of your parents but also your birthday and physical size could all effect your success in school and other endeavors, regardless of your intelligence or qualifications
  • I often tell people that my college physics teacher once complained that most students were lazy...they might learn something, but they wouldn't think about all the implications of what they learned (and he was looking right at me when he said that).

posted by forthright at 8:05 PM on April 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think you've switched up the chicken and the egg. As someone who has been depressed and has been not-depressed, and who believes in the value of knowledge but hasn't does has much as I'd like to acquire more of it - when I am depressed, I beat up on myself for my lack of knowledge. When I am not depressed, I am excited about all the things I have the chance to learn about, I enjoy being curious and am psyched to try new things.

I've spent some time around people more intellectual than I am, who had access to excellent educations. They can still struggle with depression, worry about their life's purpose and meaning, and they can compare themselves to people who are more intellectual, accomplished and educated than they are, and they can be sad and angsty and depressed. They can feel very alone and undervalued.

As another example, a friend from my home town and her husband are pretty un-intellectual folks - they aren't stupid, just not the type to read history books out of curiosity. While I worry and question myself and think and over-think, they just work and save and are happy and silly together. I'm sure they can tell that other people are thinking harder and learning more about the world than they are. It does not seem to worry them at all.
posted by bunderful at 8:40 PM on April 14, 2019 [8 favorites]

OP, your thoughtful writing does not strike me as the product of a "below average" mind
posted by shaademaan at 8:43 PM on April 14, 2019 [29 favorites]

One classic book is called "Hidden Injuries of Class" I put a search for this title in Google and found these related titles: goodreads google search for related titles Perhaps some of these titles will address specifically what you are looking for.
posted by effluvia at 10:24 PM on April 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Echoing what others say, there's no evidence I am aware of that being smarter makes you happier, and there's plenty that says the opposite.

Based on my psychology education, one thing that DOES make people happier is having higher social status, and that often correlates with higher intelligence. Specifically anyone that could be described as "the elite" has a very high social status. Our brain is wired to constantly want to be "better" in a vague status way than other people around us, and I think that might be what's really behind the feeling you are describing. One interesting thing is this perception of social status is relative to other people you interact with or know, which is one reason the elite are desperate to improve their status, when it's already so high.
posted by JZig at 2:23 AM on April 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

I do think that smart people --people who are highly educated and have a understanding of philosophy, history, sociology, culture, politics, science, literature, and economics, etc. have a greater understanding of people and how the world works and therefore have a richer and more nuanced way of seeing the world and life.

There's a large overlap between this kind of education, and privilege. Often, people with this kind of education are also sufficiently privileged that they're comfortable (because trained since birth) to talk as if they have this rich & nuanced understanding of life. I'm looking at Jacob Rees Mogg right now, because he's a laughably obvious example, but they're everywhere unfortunately. Quite often, it turns out that they're talking bollocks - but they're doing so in a loud confident voice that can intimidate others into believing what they say.

Don't let them intimidate you. Their insights are not more valuable than yours. There are a tiny number of flat-out genius-level human beings whose insights in whatever field are more valuable - Mozart, Einstein, etc - but they're so super-rare that we can pretty much exclude them.
posted by rd45 at 2:24 AM on April 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

I think you might enjoy Lubrano's Limbo.
posted by Frenchy67 at 4:58 AM on April 15, 2019

Anecdotally, I am someone with a high IQ (even if I don't really put much stock into it as a valid measurement of someone's overall intelligence) who learns new concepts/skills quickly, has multiple advanced degrees, all of that nonsense, and I have found that these "gifts" trap me in a hellish cycle of boredom, discontent, alienation from my peers, loneliness, self-loathing, and general lack of motivation to be successful at a specific vocation/hobby/etc. I thrived in grad school but out in the real world I am pretty miserable as there are limitations/flaws to human knowledge and only so many things one can learn before you start to feel like you're more of a dilettante than an actual professional/expert.

The general opinion on this subject tends to be mixed, but I agree that overall life satisfaction most likely also depends on the level of privilege someone who is deemed "highly intelligent" was born into (or anyone for that matter, honestly). I can almost guarantee gender is a factor as well, particularly when it comes to imposter syndrome. But, here is one study on the subject if you are curious (or you can read a summary if you cannot access the article).
posted by Young Kullervo at 5:41 AM on April 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

I have a surface knowledge of some things but no real depth or understanding. My intellect is average, most likely below average.

there is an instinct many people have, you could call it leveling or just contrarian, to praise people who are modest and to find fault with people who think highly of themselves. I certainly have it. there is also an instinct to identify humility as humblebragging if at all possible. but doing my best to put those instincts away, I must say that you do not communicate in a way consistent with your self-evaluation. you sound, in fact, exactly like a smart person who is depressed or just dissatisfied because they are smart. a very popular reason for depression and dissatisfaction.

and I believe you about having superficial vs. deep knowledge of things, but specialized education / sustained intellectual application are different from raw intellectual abilities.

mistakes I believe you are making:

a. you suggest that everyone values what you value, such that simply knowing one isn't a great Mind is enough to make one unhappy. some people feel that way. other people are unhappiest when they think of how they haven't got a true love, or an expensive car, or a child, or a house, or a particular job. awareness of your place in relation to others, of your relative (not absolute) poverty is often upsetting, yes. but not particularly as it relates to intellect. not so many people value intellect as you do.

b. feeling smart and superior and broadcasting the fact is a way a lot of people cope with misery and depression. it is not necessarily a good way. you do not have to be smart for real in order to give it try; nobody else feels those scruples.

c. a sensation of inadequacy in relation to your peer group is not something that intellectuals are free of. they are not even freer of it than other people.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:55 AM on April 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Having control over your life and work is a better indicator of happiness. Also, social status. Money buys health care and the ability to control one's circumstances, so is correlated with happiness, but not necessarily a cause of happiness. Money may not buy happiness so much as poverty causes misery.

Intelligence has many components; there are different types of intelligence and capability. Measuring intelligence is difficult; IQ tests are skewed towards people who have wealth and traditional Western education. One of the smartest people I know has an exceptional memory. He's really smart in many ways, but a good memory means he has facts available. People who study appear smarter, and probably exercise thinking, logic, processing skills.

I have known a few unusually intelligent people. I worked in a university. Academics are highly educated, but don't seem to have a richer and more nuanced way of seeing the world and life ... Less petty problems and grievances? More sophistication and maturity? or to be happier. People who are passionate about a subject and work towards a goal do seem happier.

Martin Seligman wrote Authentic Happiness, his research on happiness is well-regarded, and was very helpful to someone I know.

You can get smarter. Play Scrabble or chess, do crosswords, read good books, learn to play an instrument. Get a little better at basic math, which requires practice, not genius. Join a book group. Take adult ed. or community college classes, where you will meet interesting, curious people. Between the Internet and your Library, there's a world of learning available to you.
posted by theora55 at 7:23 AM on April 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

One thing to consider is that you seem to be doing an us and them thing, when really there's a whole big valuable spectrum of levels of knowledge between completely uneducated and intellectual elite. All you have is where you are, and what you choose to try to learn. My advice to you is not to devalue your ability to chase after knowledge (or intellectualism), and let me be honest, that's also my advice to myself, because I struggle with questions like this as well (first gen college graduate, etc), and have this same weird sense that I'm missing out on some greater understanding of the world.

Possibly I am, but so is everyone else to some degree or another.
posted by hought20 at 7:26 AM on April 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think you're mistaking "intellectual" for "educated". The two are not necessarily related.

I've talked about my father a lot in MeFi. He was not studious in the least - he skipped school to hang out with friends, he didn't go to college, he only went to a trade school because he had to earn some kind of living. He was one of the dudes who went to school only under duress and hung out in the shop class most of the time. (He basically was Ponyboy.)

But - he thinks very, very carefully about stuff, and is amazingly insightful. Especially when dealing with people; he knows the exact perfect way to puncture a tense situation or get along with people. He also likes exploring ideas, and will often adopt the devil's advocate position just to get a conversation going to examine an issue from all sides. (He actually managed to get me and my brother and himself going on a spirited debate one evening about "what is the exact scientific nature of a radio wave".) When I described him once to a friend, she said something really astute - "sounds like he's a thinker."

And he is - he likes thinking. He thinks deeply about things. The reason he didn't do well in school wasn't because he was dumb - it was because he was more of a nonconformist. He may not know the jargon for things, he may not have a lot of degrees, but he is still a pursuer of knowledge and is still intelligent. He just chose a different path and is pursuing knowledge in a more independent fashion.

That's still knowledge. He's still smart. That's still education.

You've asked us about how what you're feeling about the gap between "being intellectual and not being intellectual" is a Thing. But I'm asking you to consider - who says that a university degree and a high-level school is the only way to be intellectual? For a variety of reasons you may not have had the same opportunity to attend an institution of higher learning - but who said that's the only way to become educated?

I sense that the base of this question is that you're feeling like you were deprived of an education and that you mourn that. I'm suggesting that a degree is not necessarily the only definition of "education", and you can still pursue what you're looking for. You just need to go up the mountain a different way.

I'm sort of on the same path you are; my maternal grandfather once offered me the chance to go to an exclusive private school, but I turned him down because I would have missed my friends. One or twice I've wondered if that was a mistake - but i"ve realized that I think my homesickness would have made me botch up that chance anyway. And instead I've just become the kind of person who reads a lot and considers things, and pursues things independently (yeah, there are many ways in which I am my father's daughter). Maybe I could have had a Masters' in something if I'd gone a different path, but you know what, I am no less educated than I would be in that case, it's just manifesting in a different way.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:48 AM on April 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think the whole idea of intellectuals as genius brainy people is ableist and outdated and I don't think they are happier or better. I think they are more rewarded by the world with physical comfort, which may make them seem more at ease with navigating the daily bullshits, but within that physical reward also comes an idleness of the physical body with possibility a different kind of internal turmoil.

I say this as someone who for my whole life has been called this kind of person. I...do think in ways that other people struggle to keep up with and I get frustrated when I'm trying to be challenged in specific intellectual ways and I'm not...But here's the thing, that doesn't make me better than anyone and I'm not happier, I don't "see" the world as a good place, I see the world for what it is and I struggle with living in this world and seeing what it could be. My ability to think makes me more useful to capitalism, which I've exploited well for a shot at a decent life, but on the whole it is not exactly rewarding.

What has been the most rewarding for me is to realize that while I have a brain with certain kinds of aptitude, what makes me special and unique should not be considered the "highest measure of human ability". It's just a thing I do well. I know I am fortunate to get to be a person that the world has ascribed additional value, I try to be grateful yet at the same time critical of that as well.

What has made me happy is getting into positions of leadership where I can tone down this insistence on "brilliant geniuses" and instead understand that everyone has skills and talents and that we all have to come together and appreciate and respect each other and meet each other where we are at. I am genuinely happy to use the reward I got for just being born me and working to make the world a less ableist place, where "intelligence" is not about how the brain builds synaptic pathways, but about how a whole person forms.

Being able to lead in that way and watch new team dynamics and company cultures form around a more open-ended idea of what makes a person whole and appreciated and valued for who they are to the world has changed me from being a rather sad and lonely "smart person" into a happier person who serves the world out of love and compassion.
posted by nikaspark at 11:53 AM on April 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you look at academics as an example of highly intelligent and educated people, there's plenty of evidence that they still have petty problems and grievances - here is an example forum thread from someone who doesn't want to put up with it.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:53 AM on April 17, 2019

Thank you all for answering my question and providing wise and insightful comments to ponder. I marked all best because I appreciate them all.
posted by loveandhappiness at 1:29 PM on April 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

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