‘Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.’ (Ernest Hemmingway) Thus starts an article by Bill Allin called ‘Why Intelligent People Tend To Be Unhappy’. The gist of the piece is that the social and emotional development of intelligent children is neglected or even hindered by a society that cares only about the achievement of wealth and sporting excellence. It is a confused and lightweight piece (although it has had a wide readership since it was published) but it reflects a strong feeling among intelligent people that they are undervalued, rejected and disliked by everyone else.
I know the feeling very well myself. I was singled out at school for insults and bullying by the other kids. One or two teachers liked me but the vast majority – even the ones that were not games or woodwork teachers – did not. At home, I was lucky that my mother was intelligent and liked me but very unlucky in my father, who was thick and did not. One of my aunts positively despised me and the rest of my parents’ siblings and their spouses were mostly just cool and distant. It’s a miracle that I didn’t grow up twisted as well as bitter. I put down my emotional survival to an incredible self-confidence. Being intelligent has always made me an outsider but I have somehow always had the good fortune to believe that the rejections were due to other people’s inadequacies, not my own.
Allin’s article (and its sequel) focuses on what society does to intelligent children and doesn’t really try to explain why they are treated so badly. For what it’s worth my own thoughts amount to this: intelligent people actually earn the dislike of their peers and carers in a variety of ways. Briefly:
- Intelligent kids notice the bullshit. If you’re a clever child, you can’t help seeing the hypocrisy of your parents, and other adults. You can’t help seeing that the things they believe are often hollow or distorted. You can’t help spotting that they lie and that their self-justifications are frequently spurious. People don’t like being caught out and kids are too naïve not to mention their observations.
- People hate to feel stupid and they hate even more being made to look stupid. A smart ten-year-old who can explain how a telephone works better than his or her teacher or parent makes everyone feel uncomfortable and resentful. A clever seven-year-old who wants a chemistry set and plays a decent game of chess is excluding most of their peers and carers from interacting with them and is clearly beyond the resources of most adults to teach. Bright kids don’t learn, until it is too late, not to show off their skills – they’re too busy seeking approval to realise they are engendering resentment.
- Grown-ups like to feel superior. It annoys and frustrates people when the areas in which they naturally excel over children – size, strength, hand-eye coordination – are clearly boring to the bright child, who likes running about and kicking balls as much as anyone but who also has a million other more challenging things they want to get on with. It also scares adults when the other main areas in which they should excel – knowledge and wisdom – begin to look scant and feeble in comparison to those of the young intellect they are dealing with.
- Intelligent children display moral deviance. The codes by which most people live are learnt by rote and are accepted unquestioningly but the intelligent child can’t do that. He or she is congenitally incapable of just accepting what people say. Everything is examined and compared, turned over and over in the bright child’s mind until it is understood, or revealed to be nonsense. Intelligent children will question moral precepts, they will doubt the existence of gods and the supremacy of heroes. They will argue with things which, to everyone around them, are undeniable truths. It makes such kids seem weird, creepy, not really one of us.
The net result is that the intelligent child alienates most of the adults and children they meet, offends and humiliates them in ways the child cannot yet begin to understand. Gradually, the child moves outside the circle of its family and neighbours, outside the confines of its culture. It is rejected and disliked but, often, the child becomes a willing participant in its own ostracisation as it seeks other exiles and out-groups to give it the acceptance it needs.
Without the protection and support of intelligent adults and peers, it is almost inevitable that intelligent children will have a rough ride in life and, yes, many will end up unhappy.