Kanazawa and Li theorize that the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of our ancient ancestors form the foundation for what make us happy now. “Situations and circumstances that would have increased our ancestors’ life satisfaction in the ancestral environment may still increase our life satisfaction today,” they write.
They use what they call “the savanna theory of happiness” to explaintwo main findings from an analysis of a large national survey (15,000 respondents) of adults aged 18 to 28.
First, they find that people who live in more densely populated areas tend to report less satisfaction with their life overall. “The higher the population density of the immediate environment, the less happy” the survey respondents said they were.
Second, they find that the more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness.
But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed.
“The effect of population density on life satisfaction was therefore more than twice as large for low-IQ individuals than for high-IQ individuals,” they found. And “more intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently.”
Let me repeat that last one: When smart people spend more time with their friends, it makes them less happy.
“urban-rural happiness gradient.”
“Residents of rural areas and small towns are happier than those in suburbs, who in turn are happier than those in small central cities, who in turn are happier than those in large central cities.”
I posed this question to Carol Graham, a Brookings Institution researcher who studies the economics of happiness. “The findings in here suggest (and it is no surprise) that those with more intelligence and the capacity to use it … are less likely to spend so much time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective,” she said.
Think of the really smart people you know. They may include a doctor trying to cure cancer or a writer working on the great American novel or a human rights lawyer working to protect the most vulnerable people in society. To the extent that frequent social interaction detracts from the pursuit of these goals, it may negatively affect their overall satisfaction with life.
Smarter people may be better equipped to deal with the new (at least from an evolutionary perspective) challenges present-day life throws at us. “More intelligent individuals, who possess higher levels of general intelligence and thus greater ability to solve evolutionarily novel problems, may face less difficulty in comprehending and dealing with evolutionarily novel entities and situations,” they write.
If you’re smarter and more able to adapt to things, you may have an easier time reconciling your evolutionary predispositions with the modern world. So living in a high-population area may have a smaller effect on your overall well-being — that’s what Kanazawa and Li found in their survey analysis. Similarly, smarter people may be better-equipped to jettison that whole hunter-gatherer social network — especially if they’re pursuing some loftier ambition.
It’s important to remember that this is an argument Kanazawa and Li are proposing and that it’s not settled science.
But Brookings’ Carol Graham says one potential flaw in their research is that it defines happiness in terms of self-reported life satisfaction (“How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?”), and doesn’t consider experienced well-being (“How many times did you laugh yesterday? How many times were you angry?” etc.). Survey researchers know that these two types of questions can lead to very different assessments of well-being.
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