A research study suggests that highly intelligent people like to be alone.
Scientists have a pretty good idea about what makes people happy. Exercise is known to reduce anxiety and help you relax. Reducing social media use will improve your emotional wellbeing. Being in nature brings us joy.
And, for most people, being around friends makes us feel content.
Friends will make you happier. Unless you’re highly intelligent.
This quite surprising claim is backed up by research. In a paper published in the British Journal of Psychology, Norman Li and Satoshi Kanazawa explain why highly intelligent people experience lower life satisfaction when they socialize more frequently with their friends.
They based their findings in evolutionary psychology, suggesting that intelligence evolved as a quality for solving unique challenges. The more intelligent members of a group were more able to solve problems on their own without needing help from their friends.
Therefore, less intelligent people were happier to be with friends as it helped them to solve challenges. But more intelligent people were happier being alone as they could solve challenges on their own.
Let’s dive deeper into the research study.
How intelligence, population density, and friendship affect modern happiness
The researchers came to their conclusion after analyzing survey responses from 15,197 people between the ages of 18 and 28. They got their data as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey that measures life satisfaction, intelligence, and health.
One of their key findings was reported by Inverse: “Analysis of this data revealed that being around dense crowds of people typically leads to unhappiness, while socializing with friends typically leads to happiness – that is, unless the person in question is highly intelligent.”
That’s right: for most people, socializing with friends results in increasing levels of happiness. Unless you’re a really smart person.
The “savanna theory of happiness”
The authors explain their findings by referring to the “savanna theory of happiness.”
What is the “savanna theory of happiness?”
It refers to the concept that our brains did most of their biological evolution while humans were living in the savannas.
Back then, hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans lived in sparse, rural environments where it was uncommon to meet strangers.
Instead, humans lived in bands of up to 150 different humans in tight-knit groups.
Low-density, high-social interaction.
The Savanna Theory of happiness suggests that the average human’s happiness comes from conditions that mirror this ancestral savanna.
The theory comes from evolutionary psychology and argues that the human brain was largely designed by and adapted to the conditions of the environment before we created an agricultural-based society. Therefore, the researchers argue, our brains are not well suited to comprehending and responding to the unique conditions of modern-day society.
In simple terms, evolutionary psychology assumes that our bodies and brains have evolved to be hunter-gatherers. Evolution moves at a slow pace and hasn’t caught up with technological and civilizational progress.
The researchers analyzed two key factors that are unique to the contemporary era:
- Population density
- How frequently humans socialize with their friends
According to the researchers, in the modern era many people live in places of a higher population density than our ancestors did. We also spend far less time with our friends than our ancestors did.
Therefore, because our brains have evolved to be best suited to the way life was as hunter-gatherers, most people these days would be happier by living in a way that is more natural to them: be around fewer people and spend more time with friends.
It makes sense on the face of it. But the researchers have made an interesting suggestion.
According to the researchers, this doesn’t apply to highly intelligent people.
Intelligent people have adapted
When humans made the shift to highly urban environments, it profoundly impacted our culture.
No longer were humans rarely interacting with strangers. Instead, humans were interacting with unknown humans constantly.
This is a high-stress environment. Urban areas are still shown to be far more stressful for living than rural environments.
So, highly intelligent people adapted. How did they adapt?
By craving solitude.
“In general, more intelligent individuals are more likely to have ‘unnatural’ preferences and values that our ancestors did not have,” Kanazawa says. “It is extremely natural for species like humans to seek and desire friendships and, as a result, more intelligent individuals are likely to seek them less.”
They also found that highly intelligent people feel they don’t benefit as much from friendships, and yet socialize more often than less intelligent people.
Highly intelligent people, therefore, use solitude as a way to reset themselves after socializing in highly stressful urban environments.
Basically, highly intelligent people are evolving to survive in urban environments.
Let’s talk about intelligent people
What do we mean when we’re talking about “intelligent people?”
One of the best tools we have to measure intelligence is IQ. An average IQ is around 100 points.
Gifted, or highly intelligent, is a classification around 130, which is 2 standard deviations from the mean.
98% of the population has an IQ below 130.
So, if you put a highly intelligent person (130 IQ) in a room with 49 other people, the odds are that the highly intelligent person will be the smartest person in the room.
This can be a profoundly lonely experience. “Birds of a feather flock together.” In this case, the majority of those birds will have an IQ around 100, and they’ll be naturally drawn to each other.
For highly intelligent people, on the other hand, they’ll find that there are very few people that simply share their level of intelligence.
When there aren’t that many people who “get you,” it can be natural to prefer being alone.
Explaining the research finding that highly intelligent people like to be alone
The key question for the researchers is why humans have adapted the quality of intelligence.
Evolutionary psychologists believe intelligence evolved as a psychological trait to solve new problems. For our ancestors, frequent contact with friends was a necessity that helped them to ensure survival. Being highly intelligent, however, meant that an individual was uniquely able to solve challenges without needing the help of someone else. This diminished the importance of friendships to them.
Therefore, a sign of someone being highly intelligent is being able to solve challenges without the help of the group.
Historically, humans have lived in groups of around 150; the usual Neolithic village was about this size. Densely populated urban cities, on the other hand, are believed to bring out isolation and depression because they make it difficult to foster close relationships.
Yet, a busy and alienating place has less of a negative impact on more intelligent people. This may explain why highly ambitious people gravitate from rural areas to the cities.
“In general, urbanites have higher average intelligence than ruralites do, possibly because more intelligent individuals are better able to live in ‘unnatural’ settings of high population density,” says Kanazawa.
It doesn’t mean that if you like to be around your friends you’re not highly intelligent
It’s important to note that the correlation in research findings doesn’t mean causation. In other words, these research findings don’t mean that if you enjoy being around your friends then you’re not highly intelligent.
While highly intelligent people may have adapted to be more comfortable in areas of high population density, highly intelligent may also be “chameleons” – people who are comfortable in many situations.
As the researchers concluded:
“More importantly, the main associations of life satisfaction with population density and socialization with friends significantly interact with intelligence, and, in the latter case, the main association is reversed among the extremely intelligent. More intelligent individuals experience lower life satisfaction with more frequent socialization with friends.”
One of the key takeaways from the research may be to apply this to the loners in your life. Just because someone likes to be alone, doesn’t mean they’re lonely. They may just be highly intelligent and able to solve challenges on their own.
Intelligence and Loneliness
Just because someone likes to be alone doesn’t mean they’re lonely.
So, are intelligence and loneliness related? Are intelligent people more lonely than average folks?
It’s not clear, but what is clear is that intelligent people are more susceptible to pressures and anxieties that can cause loneliness.
According to Alexander Penny at the MacEwan University, higher IQ individuals tended to suffer from anxiety at higher rates than those with average IQs.
These anxieties plagued high-IQ individuals more frequently throughout the day, meaning that they were ruminating on anxieties quite constantly. This intense anxiety can cause social isolation, meaning that higher-IQ individuals might also be loners as a symptom of their anxiety.
Or, their isolation might be a way to manage their anxiety. It might be that social situations are simply causing them anxiety in the first place.
Striking out alone as a smart person
There’s another reason that smart people tend to enjoy alone time.
When smart people are alone, they can possibly work more productively.
Typically, human beings work well in groups by using their collective strengths to balance out individual weaknesses.
For smart people, being in a group can slow them down. It can be frustrating to be the only person who seems to grasp the “big picture,” when everyone else can’t seem to stop squabbling about the details.
So, intelligent people will often prefer to tackle projects solo, not because they dislike companionship, but because they believe they’ll get the project done more efficiently.
This suggests that their “loner attitude” can sometimes be an effect of their intelligence, not necessarily a preference.
The psychology of being a loner, according to Carl Jung
It’s tempting when learning of these research findings to think about how they apply to you and your life.
Personally, for a long time wondered why I loved to be alone and didn’t enjoy socializing so much. I, therefore, concluded – after reading this research – that I like to be alone because I may be highly intelligent.
But then I came across this brilliant quote by Carl Jung, and it helped me to understand my loneliness in a different way:
“Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”
Carl Jung transformed was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology. These words couldn’t be more relevant today.
When we’re able to express ourselves truthfully, we can authentically connect with each other. When we don’t, we simply live a facade that makes us feel isolated.
Unfortunately, the emergence of social media hasn’t helped when it comes to being our true selves.
Have you ever noticed that you feel envious when you browse Facebook? This is common according to research because most people only share the best of their lives (or their desired personality).
It doesn’t have to be this way and it isn’t true for everyone. Social media can be just as powerful in connecting others meaningfully. It just depends on how you use it.
Therefore, if you’re someone who likes to be alone, it may be because you are highly intelligent. But it doesn’t mean you need to continue to be alone.
Immense life satisfaction comes from finding like-minded people in your life. People who you can truly express yourself to.
It doesn’t need to be about solving challenges together. If you’re highly intelligent, you can probably already do this.
It’s about feeling a shared sense of humanity with the people around you.
The research study on the savanna theory of happiness is truly interesting for surfacing the idea that highly intelligent people prefer to be alone as a way to navigate stressful urban environments.
Their intelligence, therefore, allows them to solve challenges on their own that those in rural environments would need to tackle as a group.
Yet, I’d like to express caution in reading too much into the research study.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. More specifically, just because you like to be alone doesn’t mean you’re highly intelligent. Similarly, if you like to be around your friends doesn’t mean you’re not highly intelligent.
The research results should be interpreted more broadly, not as a statement as truth but as an interesting exercise in thinking about who you are and comparing life in modern-day society with what it may have been like for our ancestors.
Personally, over the last few years, I’ve managed to build a community of incredible like-minded people. It’s given me immense life satisfaction.
I hope you are able to find people you can truly express yourself to. If you’d like help in finding this, I suggest checking out the Out of the Box online workshop. We have a community forum and it’s a very welcoming and supportive place.