Are Smart People Less Happy? ~ John Piper Interview…

EH_QuoteThe following was one among many question that John Piper was asked on his podcast Ask Pastor John. I found the answer he gave to be very interesting so I decided to transcribe it. The answer that he gives is here (click) , and you can listen to the audio there.

*Note: In the transcription below, the emphasis (underlining, bold face, etc.) and mine. So also the art. 

Tony Reinke: Ernest Hemingway is reported to have once said that ‘Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know’.

Pastor John, what do you think of this? Is this true? Are the deepest thinkers the most unhappy people?

John Piper: First of all, I doubt that Ernest Hemingway ever knew an intelligent, red-blooded, unashamed, thoughtful, articulate, happy Christian. The circles he functioned in, and the jaundiced view that led him to blow his brains out when he was 61 years old,  with a shot gun, didn’t give him a very good exposure to the possibilities of a kind of happiness that thrives precisely amid the sorrows of knowledge. But, he does put his finger on a truth that is biblical. And it is Ecclesiastes 1:18:

“In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

Piper: Thats what he experienced. And thats true, so my answer is yes. Its true because the Bible says so. At the end of the book, it says:

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”Notice

Thats true. So the intellectual life. The life of the mind. The life of thinking and wrestling with problems and trying to solve them is a life of increased sorrow and weariness. Yes it is. Yes it is. But notice. It does not say that increased knowledge leads to decreased joy. Increased sorrow? Yes. Decreased joy? No. 

What if sorrow and joy increased together almost in proportion with increased knowledge? 

What if the reason all the intellectuals that Hemingway knew were unhappy, is that they were only increasing in one kind of knowledge and not the kind that brings joy? 

Biblically, the case for knowledge, the life of thinking and understanding is mixed. It increases sorrow and it increases joy.  If you would know God better and know the world better and know yourself better, there is a price to be paid in sorrow and vexation.  It will be costly. And there is also pleasure to be had, and it is the Bible says, worth it all!

So, let me give the reasons that I can think of why the Bible says that increased knowledge increases sorrow:

1. Because the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. Its like paddling your little boat of knowledge further and further out into the endless sea of knowledge which is infinite because God is infinite, away from the comfortable shores of security and ignorance.  

The ignorant people don’t know the extent of what they don’t know. Those who pursue knowing  get to the top of a ridge – switched the metaphor now from paddling to climbing – they get to the top of a ridge, that they’ve been climbing for 10 years and as they pull their chin up over their top, they see 10,000 mountains to climb.

The person at the bottom who hasn’t been climbing, he can’t even see over the ridge. He’s lost sight of the person climbing the ridge, so he is not bothered by those 10,000 mountains yet to be scaled out there, so thats number 1, number 2…

2. Knowledge increases sorrow because the more we know the more we know of suffering. This is a fallen world. The more you know of it, the more you weep. It is.  Its futility. Its brokenness. Its misery. The ignorant feel some of it, but those who increase in knowledge of the world outside and the scope of history – its a “conveyer belt of corpses” one historian said, and we weep because of the more we know of this fallen world.

3. Third reason that knowledge growing increases sorrow is because the more we know, the more we are accountable to live up to.  

“To whom much is given, much is required.”

Our responsibility increases.

“Let not many of you become teachers.”  There is a burden to carry when God has given you insight. Yes, Christ gives help with all of our burdens but Paul spoke of an anxiety for all the churches. He carried so much himself and he wanted them to know so much and it was a burden that they learned this and lived this. 

4. Fourth, knowledge increases sorrow because we are compelled to change our ideas of when we learned something. In jumping from that little boat I talked about – that little boat of knowledge that you are sailing on into the sea of what you don’t know. Sometimes you gotta leap out of the boat because it turns out to be wrong. “I’m sailing the wrong theological boat and there is just a little raft of truth out there and you got to leap for it and you get splinters in your hands and your ego and thats painful to have to change your thoughts.


I remember I wept my eyes out in the Fall of 1968 as my theology was crumbling and needing to be rebuilt. Its a very painful thing to be able to walk through transformation of what you think you know. 

5. And the last one I thought of was, knowledge increases sorrow because the more we know, the more dementia will take away.  A mind full of great truth from God’s Word and God’s World will feel the sting of senility more keenly than the mind that has less to lose. 

So yes  Hemingway, much wisdom increases vexation and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow, but the message of the Bible is that it is worth it. Its worth the sorrow. 

The summons of the Bible everywhere is “Get knowledge! Get understanding!” The Bible never says run away from it. It  warns you of the pain, but it never says turn and run. 

“My son if you receive my words and treasure and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.”

Thats hardly a warning but aggressive an invitation as you could possibly make to go for it. Go for it! Yes sorrow, but go for it! That was Proverbs 2. 

Proverbs 20 – There is gold and abundance of costly stones, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.

Jesus – “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Hosea: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” 

Romans 10: “I bear them witness. They have a zeal for God but it is not according to knowledge.”

Colossians 2: “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

So in other words Mr. Hemingway, increased knowledge does increase vexation and sorrow, but that is only half the story and oh that you had known the other half!  In Jesus Christ, this vexing knowledge is a treasure chest of precious jewels.


Reinke: “Yes and amen. Thank you Pastor John and in fact one of  the critical things to learn is how to build our intelligence in order to make us more childlike in our dependence on God, not less dependent on Him.