Why So Many Highly Intelligent People Are So Unhappy

Reversing the link between intellectual excitability and unhappiness.

Sean Kernan
6 min readJun 3, 2024
Uncle Jeff and I, when he was in town visiting.

My uncle Jeff was one of the most achievement oriented people you could ever meet. After being valedictorian of his high school, he went to Princeton, and later became a top neurosurgeon at John’s Hopkins, one of the world’s leading hospitals for brain surgery.

He was brilliant and had a steel trap memory, remembering small details about our interactions, decades later, which made him impossible to lie to— because he always knew when I was contradicting myself.

But he was also fairly miserable. He never settled down with a family, and was all consumed with his work, putting in 80 hour weeks on the regular.

And it cost him dearly — he died at age 50 of a heart attack, being dead by the time he hit the hospital treadmill he was jogging on. It was only after cleaning out his apartment, that we discovered so many of the bad lifestyle habits he’d taken up, that were likely related to some lack of fulfillment in his life.

It feels cliche to even say that intelligent people are less happy — but there’s some truth to this, and not in ways that people typically assume. What does it mean and how can we all learn from it?

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Sean Kernan

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