Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What's most important? Intelligence or emotional health?

By Louise Kinross

What factors in childhood predict later satisfaction and happiness in life?

Two articles crossed my desk about studies that come to vastly different conclusions.

The first article is about a study published in 2014 in the Economic Journal by London School of Economics (LSE) researchers. This study finds emotional health in childhood and later is the most important predictor of adult life satisfaction. 

Researchers used data from about 9,000 people born over a three-week period in 1970 and tracked by the British Cohort Survey, which has participants fill out a questionnaire about their lives every five to seven years. 

Emotional health, the LSE researchers found, is more important than education or income to future happiness. Least important, they say, is intellectual performance as a child. 

The second article is a piece I read on Saturday by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente: The explosive science of genetics,

It suggests the exact opposite.

In it, Wente refers to a 2015 study in Molecular Psychiatry from Nature.

"Intelligence (as Dr. Plomin and others wrote in an influential piece in Nature) is 'one of the best predictors of important life outcomes such as education, occupation, mental and physical health and illness and mortality.' 

"Intelligence, one of the most heritable behavioural traits, is also an important factor in class differences," Wente writes. "Intelligent people are healthier, happier and stay married longer. They are also likely to marry each other and produce intelligent children. The implications for inequality and social mobility are significant."

The findings obviously have implications for parents raising children with intellectual disabilities. But I think they also relate in some ways to people living with physical disability. In both instances, people with disabilities tend to rate their quality of life much higher than their families or doctors and researchers do.  

The common view is that disability, of any kind, is a negative.

In NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman's groundbreaking new book on the history and nature of autism, he presents a different view.

He notes that Hans Asperger, one of autism's research pioneers, saw a child's gifts as "inextricable from their impairments." According to Asperger, the "positive and negative qualities" of a child with autism, or any disability, "are two natural, necessary, interconnected aspects of one well-knit, harmonious personality."

This reminded me of a piece by parent and author Rob Rummel-Hudson. 

In it, Rob argues that his daughter's differences are generative. "It changes everything about how she thinks and how she processes the world around her," he writes. "Those different paths are hard for her teachers and friends and even her family to understand, and impossible for us to travel. But they are her paths, and they are beautiful." 

I wrote about it here: Disability doesn't just take, it gives.

I wondered how the 'emotional health' researchers written about above would square their findings with the 'intelligence' scientists, and vice versa. 

So I sent an e-mail to each of the lead researchers.

I'll let you know what I hear.


They are not unrelated things. To be perfectly happy, have great emotional health when living in horrific circumstances, unacceptable conditions, and don't forget criminally, though that is not something I think fits in this discussion, can be a terrible thing. My friend had to extricate her brother out of such a situation. He was getting his body parts amputated from infections, was in horrible pain, lots of teeth, mouth issues, and living in a way that brings tears to eyes. But he's always a happy fellow. I'm not sure if he's happier now that he's cleaned up and healthier physically, and having to follow some routine and keep to some standards, but he was living below most human standards. Yes, that can happen.

But intelligence can also be a great cause of unhappiness, discontentment and emotional turmoil even when it is bring what are considered societal achievements that are optimal At the extremes, things do get distorted. Some intertwining and balance is needed as the two ends of this graph, are not desirable for anyone.

You might take a look at the work of James Heckman (Nobel Prize Winner in Economics). The growing body of evidence is that emotional and behavioral factors are far better predictors of long term well-being (including occupational and income) than is IQ.