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Why highly intelligent people are loners: savanna theory of happiness

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.

intelligent people be alone

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.

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People are happier being with friends as we evolved this way, but more intelligent people were happier being alone.

Here’s why.

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 which 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.”

Intelligent people, be alone

That’s right: 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 invoking 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.

They analyzed two key factors that are unique to the contemporary era:

  • Population density
  • How frequently humans socialize with their friends

According to the researchers, today many people live in places of a higher population density than our ancestors would have lived in, and spend less time with friends than our ancestors did. Therefore, most people will become happier by living according to what is natural to them: be around fewer people and spend more time with friends.


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However, 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.”

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Intelligent people be alone

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 uniquely being able to solve challenges without the help of the group.

Intelligent people be alone

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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. That 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:

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“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.

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

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