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”, which is based on the idea that people’s life satisfaction is based not only on what’s happening in the present but also by how our ancestors may have reacted in the present.
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.
“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.
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.
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 because they are able to solve challenges on their own.
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.