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It turns out intelligence, not ignorance, is bliss Add to ...

Take Woody Allen.

You don't think of him as being happy, do you?

I didn't think so.

"I like to work," the filmmaker, writer and actor recently told The Globe's Johanna Schneller. "It distracts me from brooding or anxiety."

But it's not just because he's famous for his fretting mind that we think of him as generally unhappy. It's because we think of him as intelligent; as a deep thinker who dwells on the treacheries and complexities of the world, not to mention the human heart. Same would be true for Canada's filmic deep thinker, David Cronenberg.

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Now consider Dubya.

He's bound to be a happy dude most of the time, right?

You can easily picture him grillin' ribs on his Texas ranch, wearing a Stetson, hanging out with his cronies in short sleeves, not a care in the world. And I would venture that many people think of George W. Bush as disposed to happiness because they don't consider him very smart - erring precariously on the side of doofus. Ditto Mr. Bunga Bunga, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. Which makes them capable of unfettered joy.

I know, I have done it too: fallen into that happiness trap. You equate happiness with a lack of intellectual vigour. It's only for uneducated, unaware people, those who ascribe to that Caribbean holiday mantra: "Don't worry, be happy."

Those people aren't worrying about global warming, the crime rate, the economy, the state of health care, a majority Conservative government, this month's Visa bill, five new grey hairs they noticed this morning, their children's education, or their retirement plans (or lack of them) - have I missed anything? Because if they were, how could they possibly be happy?

They're drinking psychological pina coladas.

Let me be the one to say, "Not so fast." The anti-intellectual take on happiness is a myth, one that's been around for a long time when you consider Biblical notions of knowledge causing a fall from grace; ignorance as bliss. Then there are all those quotes floating about, such as that of the man who told the 18th century's Samuel Johnson: "You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I don't know how. Cheerfulness was always breaking in."

But it turns out happiness can be seen as an intellectual exercise that necessitates the use of our evolved cognitive functions. (The engine of it ain't in your capricious heart, it seems, but in your noggin.)

"The truth is, unhappiness and fear take less thought than happiness does," says Shawn Achor, a leading expert on human potential, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, and the educator who taught and designed the famed happiness course at Harvard.

It's true that happiness and intelligence are not directly related. Not every happy person is the smartest in the room. And we all know brilliant people who are discontented.

We also know some very happy people who seem stupid. As Mr. Achor points out, "There are some people who appear happy who give happiness a bad name." They're what he calls "irrational optimists."

"That would be an author who writes things saying that if you wish something would happen, it will happen," he says. "What that indicates is that there's no external world in the formula. It's all about what your mind is. But we know that's not true. We know that 10 per cent of your long-term happiness is predicted based on the external world. ... We know there are challenges; there are economic downturns; there's discrimination. What positive psychology talks about is how you deal with those situations in the most adaptive way, which is what I call rational optimism."

The breakthrough news is on the documented relationship between the intellectual capacity of the brain and happiness.

"Everyone has a band of potential in terms of intelligence and success rates," Mr. Achor says in a phone interview from his home in Texas. "When the brain is positive and happier, you are at the upper end of your potential. Which means if you prime a student or an employee to be positive before taking an intelligence test, their score rises dramatically. Your brain is actually smarter when it's positive than when it's negative, neutral or stressed."

He goes on to explain that "only 25 per cent of job success is predicted by intelligence. Seventy-five per cent is predicted by three characteristics related to happiness: optimism, a positive social support network and a positive response to stress."

In The Happiness Advantage, he writes about seven principles that show how the brain can develop greater happiness and productivity. An interesting one is called Post Traumatic Growth. "Without thinking about things, we assume that bad things in the world, that suffering, will create negative effects upon us. That's the position of someone who thinks less, not more," he explains. "Someone who thinks more is actually scanning for how that's not necessarily true in reality.

"When something bad happens, someone can be debilitated. They can remain unaffected by it - which is how we define resiliency. But if you think things through clearly and more deeply, you start to find that some people grow not despite the trauma, but because of it. The research we have on everything from combat, refugee displacement, to breast cancer - every trauma that you could use to justify being unhappy in the world - we've found that some people have grown because of it."

As a "perfect example" of Post Traumatic Growth, he cites Viktor Frankl's 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, about his imprisonment in a concentration camp and his way of finding a reason to live.

"It takes a lot of intelligence and complexity to take a situation like a concentration camp - the worst possible external world - and write about how you create meaning and nobility in the midst of that," Mr. Achor points out.

Happiness may not be considered cool. Many think it's more edgy and realistic to be disaffected; ironically bleak about the world.

But happiness is not a holiday from the head, it's an engagement of it.

Coin a new mantra, I say: "Worry, Think and Create Happiness."



Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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