Blaine: The four habits of satisfied people


Wesley Blaine, Op-Ed Contributor

I was on an athletic scholarship as an undergraduate.

I remember my first day on campus, in the fall of 1993, when I discovered that my academic adviser placed me in astronomy instead of biology to satisfy a science requirement. This class was filled with athletes. Several became famous, including my roommate — who went on to be the first pick in the MLB draft.

We were required to attend study hall every night for two hours. One night, early in the semester, someone handed me a practice test for astronomy. I never thought much of it until I took the real test and realized that many of the questions were from the practice test.

Situations like these happened often. My academic advisers and tutors were not looking out for my long-term welfare. They were doing what they were told to do to keep me playing.

I did not think of the long-term damage this did to me until I stopped playing my sport. By not letting me struggle, I was not challenging myself. By not challenging myself, I began to believe that I was incapable of doing intellectually stimulating work. Perhaps this is why I am simultaneously insecure about my intelligence and fascinated by intelligence.

Society values intelligence. Science demonstrates that it has remarkable benefits too.

Intelligent children tend to live longer regardless of what socioeconomic status they come from. One study found that each additional IQ point predicted a 1 percent decrease in the risk of death. Another study found that smarter people tend to be funnier.

But perhaps best of all, intelligence can help us earn more money and accumulate wealth.

That’s the finding from a fascinating study by Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at The University of Pennsylvania.

Duckworth examined 9,646 Americans, with a mean age of 68 years. She wanted to know what impacted their success the most: intelligence or personality.

She theorized that the most successful people would have objective and subjective measures of success. Objective success was having money and wealth. Subjective success was feeling satisfied with life, having a positive outlook and not being negative.

What Duckworth discovered was that intelligence predicted objective success. But more intelligent people tended to be more dissatisfied with their life compared to other people in the study.

The most successful participants in Duckworth’s study, those with objective and subjective measures of success, scored high in conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness is one of the big five personality traits. According to the American Psychological Association it’s “the tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking … to follow socially prescribed norms for impulse control, to be goal directed, to plan, and to be able to delay gratification and to follow norms and rules.”

Conscientious people tend to have four habits: self-control, orderliness, responsibility and industriousness.

The conscientious people in Duckworth’s study had money, assets, a positive outlook on life and felt satisfied.

This does not mean that you will earn a mountain of money and feel satisfied with your life if you are conscientious. Nor does it mean that you will be rich and wind up dissatisfied with your life if you are extremely intelligent. It only indicates that hard work trumps intelligence if you want material success and life satisfaction.

But why are conscientious people satisfied and wealthy?

One reason may be that they stay focused on long-term goals even when temptations arise. “In the workplace,” says Duckworth, “conscientious individuals who work hard, complete tasks thoroughly, stay organized, act responsibly, and make decisions carefully are more productive.”

Conscientious habits help us build healthy relationships too. One study found that conscientious children had more friends than their more intelligent peers.

The reason seems to be that conscientious children possess more self-control than their less conscientious peers. Self-control can prevent a child from saying or doing something mean to another child. It lets a child gauge their peer’s mood and be cognizant of their behavior too.

The good news is Northwestern students are likely conscientious and intelligent. Conscientiousness can help us work hard, persevere and maintain self-control. Intelligence can help us grasp complex concepts quicker and utilize that information creatively.

If given the choice, though, this study indicates that conscientiousness provides more benefits than intelligence. This may be helpful to keep in mind if you ever feel intellectually inferior at Northwestern — like I sometimes do.

Wesley Blaine is a graduate student in Northwestern’s counseling program. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.