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Is There a Connection Between Intelligence & Depression?

Katelyn Hagerty

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Geoffrey Whittaker

Published 03/04/2023

Are depressed people smarter? This is a tricky question to answer, but we’re here to offer some insight.

Surely, there must be an upside to depression. A disorder that affects millions, robs them of their positive emotions and affects their ability to get healthy sleep — depression must have some benefits, right?

You may have heard in passing that depression is, at the very least, a marker of intellect — perhaps even a cause for it. Maybe people who are depressed are just in a league of their own, intellectually.

Unfortunately, life isn’t fair, and conditions like depression don’t come with a balancing benefit for all the symptoms you’ll experience. You don’t get a superpower to go along with your super “curse.”

Luckily, someone with a high level of intelligence is probably smart enough to take expert advice and seek treatment for mental health conditions like depression.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s talk about the connection between intelligence and depression.

The internet is rife with articles touting the “bad news” for smart people and their mental health. There are plenty of blogs discussing how smart people are more likely to be depressed, but it takes a little digging to find out why this is the case. 

For instance, Psychology Today notes that a high IQ is correlated with a number of mental health issues and risk factors. According to them:

  • A high IQ is correlated with social isolation, which can lead to depression.

  • A person with a high IQ’s intelligence can be “out of sync” with the majority.

  • High-IQ people are more likely to feel frustration from being misunderstood.

  • People with a high IQ tend to overthink and overanalyze.

  • Intelligent people can set goals that are too lofty for their overall happiness.

  • Smart people don’t always behave smartly — and don’t necessarily make better decisions.

In other words, a high IQ or above-average intellect can actually be a problem because it can lead to behaviors that are isolating and anxiety-inducing while creating unnecessary stress.

It seems like there may be some truth to the idea that dumb people are happier — ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes. 

But since you’re here with your big brain expecting us to drop some knowledge on you, let’s look at the numbers and go a little deeper.

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There hasn’t been a substantial amount of research determining the particular cause-and-effect relationship between intelligence and depression, but studies have made some headway about the connection.

A 2019 paper looked at cognitive function in childhood through adulthood to determine whether lower cognitive function predicted the risk of major depressive disorder (MDD) later in life. The study did find some comorbidity (which basically means the conditions sometimes appeared side-by-side), but there appeared to be no cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

A 2017 paper actually had a more complicated explanation of the relationship between intelligence and depression, however. It examined two large cohort studies with populations of about 100,000 combined. Researchers were looking for the relationship between intelligence, depression and neuroticism — the trait describing your vulnerability to the effects of emotional stress

They found that high intelligence may reduce the distressing effects of neuroticism. However, it doesn’t protect against a diagnosis of depression in people with high neuroticism.

In other words, when a person has both a high neuroticism trait and intelligence, their intelligence level does not seem to protect them from developing major depression.

Most articles cite a 2017 study from the journal Intelligence, which compared the mental health diagnoses of Mensa members to normal individuals. They found that the rates of both depression and anxiety disorders were more than double the national averages.

It’s an important study, given that Mensa requires its members to test with an IQ in the highest percentage. But the study’s survey failed to establish any parameters for judging whether there was a cause-and-effect relationship between intelligence and depression.

Why are smart people more depressed? It’s certainly the case that intelligence can increase your risk of depressive factors. 

Mensa’s survey results could indicate that smart people are more often depressed, at least by their own members’ data.

But there’s no explanation — none proven, at least — as to why that correlation exists. That makes the value of this information a little, well…nonexistent. We’re also willing to bet that an intelligent person obsessing over the answer might stress themselves out, and in the process, potentially increase their risk of depression. It’s a downward spiral.

Here’s the thing, though: there are other factors that would be higher on our list of priorities to consider, and according to resources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), your intellect isn’t exactly on the list of depressive disorder causes.

That said, things that are on the list do have a confirmed link to your risk of depression. Risk factors may include:

The same goes for people with poor cardiovascular health, obesity and other chronic conditions. Things like isolating yourself, working unhealthy hours and messing with your circadian rhythm to be a night owl might also be making your mental health worse.

What we’re getting at here is that your intelligence could, potentially, be causing your depression — maybe. But if you’re smart enough to make yourself depressed, you’re also smart enough to seek some help in dealing with it. You’re wise enough to take action.

You know that treating depression might involve cleaning up your habits, talking to a therapy professional or potentially using medications like antidepressants.

And because you’re so smart, you know where to start — by connecting with a healthcare professional.

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Are smart people more depressed? Smart people may be at a higher risk of depression, but in order to tell people your depression is due to intelligence, you have to be intelligent. You know what makes you look really, really smart? Getting professional help for your mental health. 

We know things get in the way, of course. But luckily, we offer online therapy and mental health resources so you can get quick and convenient support for your mental health needs.

Our online therapy platform can cut down on your commute and cut corners on any social anxiety you might be battling, and our mental health resources can get you help with medication and questions about other issues fast without a trip to an office.

You just have to be smart enough to get started. That sounds easy to us.

6 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Chand SP, Arif H. Depression. [Updated 2022 Jul 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430847/.
  2. Ruth I. Karpinski, Audrey M. Kinase Kolb, Nicole A. Tetreault, Thomas B. Borowski, High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities, Intelligence, Volume 66, 2018, Pages 8-23, ISSN 0160-2896. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289616303324.
  3. Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). 13 reasons why a high IQ can make you less happy. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/202111/13-reasons-why-high-iq-can-make-you-less-happy.
  4. Schaefer, J. D., Scult, M. A., Caspi, A., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D. W., Hariri, A. R., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Ramrakha, S., Poulton, R., & Moffitt, T. E. (2017). Is low cognitive functioning a predictor or consequence of major depressive disorder? A test in two longitudinal birth cohorts. Development and psychopathology, 1–15. Advance online publication. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5842891/.
  5. Navrady, L. B., Ritchie, S. J., Chan, S. W. Y., Kerr, D. M., Adams, M. J., Hawkins, E. H., Porteous, D., Deary, I. J., Gale, C. R., Batty, G. D., & McIntosh, A. M. (2017). Intelligence and neuroticism in relation to depression and psychological distress: Evidence from two large population cohorts. European psychiatry : the journal of the Association of European Psychiatrists, 43, 58–65. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5486156/.
  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Depression: What You Need to Know as You Age. Retrieved February 21, 2023 from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/depression-what-you-need-to-know-as-you-age

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.

She received her undergraduate degree in nursing from the University of Delaware and her master's degree from Thomas Jefferson University. You can find Katelyn on Doximity for more information.

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