Education boosts well-being, but intelligence can bring you down, study suggests

In a recent study published in the journal NPJ Mental Health Research, researchers explore the causal association between educational attainment, intelligence, and well-being.

Study: An exploration into the causal relationships between educational attainment, intelligence, and wellbeing: an observational and two-sample Mendelian randomisation study. Image Credit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock.com Study: An exploration into the causal relationships between educational attainment, intelligence, and well-being: an observational and two-sample Mendelian randomisation study. Image Credit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock.com

The long-term effects of education

Education is essential for gaining knowledge, working skills, and socialization skills, which collectively help young people prepare themselves for adulthood. Thus, educational attainment is an important determinant of occupational status, financial security, marital condition, and health later in life.

Existing literature supports a causal association of educational attainment with smoking habits, sedentary behaviors, body mass index (BMI), suicidal risks, insomnia, and major depressive disorder. However, no causal relationship between educational attainment and well-being has been established.

Educational attainment is highly correlated with many aspects of intelligence, including memory and learning, processing speed, and abstract, verbal, and spatial reasoning. Comparatively, observational studies have reported a negative association between intelligence and well-being after adjusting for other factors, including income and parental education.

About the study

In the current study, scientists use a two-sample Mendelian randomization approach to explore the causal and independent associations of educational attainment and intelligence with well-being.

Mendelian randomization methods utilize summary-level genetic data to determine potentially causal relationships. In two-sample Mendelian randomization studies, the associations between the genetic instrumental variable, otherwise referred to as the predicting variable, and the exposure and outcome are determined from different non-overlapping samples. Additionally, summary-level data is used to derive the Mendelian randomization estimate.     

Genetic findings were supplemented using longitudinal observational data to further examine the relationship between educational attainment and well-being to clarify possible sex differences, non-linear trends, and moderating effects of intelligence.   

Important observations

The Univariable Mendelian randomization findings revealed a strong causal and bidirectional association between educational attainment and intelligence. The magnitude of this effect was two-fold higher for educational attainment on intelligence.

The Mendelian randomization analysis observed a small positive causal effect of educational attainment on well-being. A causal effect of well-being on educational attainment was also observed.  

The current study used the latest genetic instrument for well-being to determine causal effects. This instrument utilizes four well-being traits, including life satisfaction, positive affect, neuroticism, and depressive symptoms, which are collectively referred to as the well-being spectrum.  

The current study revealed a 0.057 increase in well-being for every 3.6-year increase in schooling. The Mendelian randomization analysis also revealed a causal effect of well-being on intelligence; however, no causal impact of intelligence on well-being was observed. The magnitude of this effect was similar to that observed for educational attainment.  

Independent causal effects of both educational attainment and intelligence on well-being were observed. More specifically, educational attainment was associated with a positive effect, whereas intelligence was associated with a negative effect.

After adjusting for intelligence, a positive causal effect of a genetic predisposition to higher educational attainment on well-being was observed. Comparatively, a negative effect of intelligence on well-being was observed after adjusting for educational attainment.

After adjusting for intelligence, further analysis revealed an independent association between well-being and educational attainment. After adjusting for well-being, a similar independent association was observed between intelligence and educational attainment.

Longitudinal observational findings

Observational data was collected from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a prospective cohort study conducted in the United Kingdom. No significant difference in happiness scores was observed between participants with and without a university degree. However, a significantly higher life satisfaction score was observed among participants with a university degree.  

These observations indicate that higher educational attainment, defined as having at least a university degree, does not predict subjective happiness but may predict increased life satisfaction.

Females with a university degree were found to have significantly higher life satisfaction than those without a university degree, with this effect less pronounced among males with and without a university degree. In contrast, while females with a university degree exhibited higher subjective happiness, males with a university degree experienced lower subjective happiness.

An induction in intelligence correlated with reduced subjective happiness and increased life satisfaction. The gender-wide comparison revealed that males with lower intelligence scores have higher subjective happiness.

Study significance

The current study combines genetic and observational data to determine the causal associations between educational attainment, intelligence, and well-being. To this end, a bidirectional causal association was observed between educational attainment and well-being, with well-being having a higher magnitude of effect on educational attainment.

The negative impact of intelligence on well-being suggests that highly intelligent students are at a greater risk of experiencing academic stress and that additional well-being supports are needed to alleviate these pressures.

Journal reference:
  • Armitage, J. M., Wootton, R. E., Davis, O. S. P., & Haworth, C. M. A. (2024). An exploration into the causal relationships between educational attainment, intelligence, and wellbeing: an observational and two-sample Mendelian randomisation study. NPJ Mental Health Research. doi:10.1038/s44184-024-00066-x
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Written by

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.

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