The success of the film Limitless and the increasing use of ‘smart drugs’ suggest to us that a lot of people wish they could somehow get smarter. Smarter people enjoy better careers, higher salaries and fewer problems that they can’t overcome; so it’s no wonder that a high IQ is considered a desirable thing.
Unfortunately though, being highly intelligent is not entirely good news and there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that some negative things can come from being smarter. In fact you may be at risk of poor mental health, so it’s important to be aware of the potential risks if you’re the ‘thinking’ type or if you know someone who is.
The Downsides of Above Average Intelligence
For instance, the ‘Sad Socrates’ effect describes how those with high IQs are more likely to suffer with ‘existential depression’. In other words, because those with high IQs are more likely to ask ‘big questions’ regarding the nature of life and the universe, they are also more likely to find themselves struggling to find meaning. This can lead to reckless behavior and/or the symptoms that we would typically associated with general depression.
There has been a long history too of suggesting that manic depression is more common among creative geniuses and there are many anecdotal cases to support this theory (1). This has not always been backed up by the evidence however (2). Bipolar disorder is also more common among entrepreneurs and if you make the assumption that entrepreneurs are of above-average creativity and IQ, then it follows that IQ could be related to bipolar disorder. Research has also shown that ‘straight A students’ are up to four times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder (3), though there are various potential confounding variables to account for here.
Meanwhile it has also been shown that those with high IQs are more likely to be ‘night owls’ (4). Unfortunately, ‘eveningness’ of this kind has also been correlated with heightened emotional instability. Night owls are also more likely to use drugs.
Perhaps most worrying is the suggestion that intelligence may be linked to an increased chance of suicide (5).
Does Intelligence Really Make You Stressed and Depressed?
The evidence is not conclusive then but there are certainly enough studies to provide us with ’cause for concern’ regarding a connection between intelligence and mental health issues. Moreover, most of us know of at least one highly intelligent person who has struggled with some of these issues. We all know ‘troubled genius’ types who ‘go off the rails’ due to a lack of meaning, or because they aren’t stimulated enough by their surroundings. We’ve all seen highly intelligent and gifted people turn to drugs and end up squandering their potential.
Then again, there are also plenty of examples most of us can point to of highly intelligent people who have nevertheless managed to live very fulfilling lives and maintain great mental health. We are drawn to the studies of entrepreneurs and geniuses committing suicide and as such we ignore the many millions of cases where that doesn’t happen. At this juncture it might also be useful to point out the difficulty in even defining intelligence. The generally accepted view is that there are in fact many different ‘types’ of intelligence, so it could well be that high intelligence in certain areas is actually what is correlating with mental health issues.
I remember at school a boy who would constantly misbehave and get thrown out of class. The teachers all told us that the reason he was always in trouble was that he was ‘too intelligent’ and thus wasn’t challenged enough by the material. While this might very well have been the case, my observation was that if maybe he was just a little bit more intelligent, maybe he’d have been able to find a more constructive way of dealing with his boredom…
How to Deal With High Intelligence
So how do you prevent high IQ from being a burden?
The first step to take is to acknowledge some of the risks that can come from being highly intelligent such as insomnia and the ‘Sad Socrates’ phenomenon and to use your intelligence in order to deal with those issues.
For instance, if you find that your mind is always racing when you are trying to get to sleep and that this is preventing you from adapting to a healthy sleep/wake rhythm, then you should look into ways to encourage yourself to ‘switch off’ once it becomes time for bed. You can do this by attempting to maintain healthy habits, by using a number of strategies to increase your tiredness at the end of the day and perhaps by using techniques like meditation to learn to quieten your thoughts.
Likewise, you can use cognitive behavioral therapy in order to address existential depression and the resulting anxiety that this can trigger. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves using particular thought patterns in order to encourage healthy reactions to circumstances and situations.
For instance, if you find yourself stressed and unhappy at a lack of understanding, then you can replace these negative thoughts with reassurance that there is a beauty in not-knowing – and the fact that you can only do what’s best for yourself in the here and now meaning that getting anxious is not constructive. It’s fine to marvel at the mysteries of the universe, but if this is causing you distress then you need to use ‘cognitive restructuring’ to reshape your mind.
And if you aren’t feeling challenged enough in your daily life, then you should look for new ways to stimulate yourself. Whether this means taking on projects at home like a side business, or whether it means learning something new like a language or a skill. Surrounding yourself with other people of a similar IQ can also help you to feel less lonely and provide you with more intellectual stimulation.
In short, you should tackle the issues presented to you by your psychology using the same tools you would tackle any other problem. In this way an increased IQ and an increased ability to understand and ‘hack’ systems can become your greatest advantage rather than a weakness.