The human species has evolved thanks to its ability to adapt. Millions of years of natural selection have erected our bodies and developed a piece of fascinating machinery orchestrated by a brain that never stops asking questions.
Thanks to its intellect, Homo sapiens managed to acquire the necessary tools and skills to establish and expand its domain. But our civilization has changed the world so much that our modern needs and desires are considerably different from those of our ancestors. Understanding how an ancient body and mind developed to survive in the hostility of the wild can adapt to modern life is a challenge that neuroscientists and sociologists have taken on. And a recent study has shown that intelligent people are happiest alone.
The human brain has evolved to adapt to the ancestral wild environment, not necessarily to modern stimuli and way of life. As we hunted and gathered for millions of years, natural selection had time to do its job and condition our physiology for the challenges the world presented. But the technological leap that our species achieved when we began to settle in groups and domesticate food led to modern society. This abrupt leap took 10,000 years—an eye blink on geologic scales—so our psyches did not have time to develop the tools necessary to adapt to the new era.
Norman Li and Satoshi Kanazawa express it clearly in their 2016 article: “The human brain is designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment, not necessarily the current environment, and is therefore predisposed to perceive and respond to the current environment as if it were the ancestral environment”. The authors call this proposal “the savanna theory of happiness”.
Previous analyzes indicate that our ancestors organized themselves in groups of around 150 people intending to facilitate greater cooperation and reciprocity among their members. If the number grew too large, the group tended to split into two. So our primitive brains prefer close contact with a small number of people; the complete opposite of what an average New Yorker experiences.
The study led by Li and Kanazawa analyzed data from interviews conducted by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) in 2001-2002 with 15,197 people aged 18-28. Based on these data, they sought correlations between the level of satisfaction described by the respondents and their way of life. For this last parameter, two main factors were taken into account: population density and the frequency with which respondents interacted with their affections and friends.
The results indicate that, in general, people who live in more densely populated places experience less satisfaction with life—they are less happy—while those who live in less populated locations denote the opposite. This fact is related to the fact that people who live in denser areas tend to have more standard ties and those who live in areas with less population density have fewer ties, but these tend to be stronger.
However, the analysis became more complex when the authors introduced another parameter in the study: the intelligence of the respondents. The survey carried out by Add Health contemplated this parameter and evaluated the intellectual capacity of individuals based on their results in the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.
The data suggests that the most intelligent people break the average trend: instead of feeling happier with the protection and warmth provided by a human group, they report feeling more comfortable in solitude. Paradoxically, these people tend to be sociable and enjoy interacting with large groups, although without going too deeply into the bonds.
This finding is puzzling, but the researchers believe it is linked to the fact that smarter people may have evolved finer socialization skills that allow them to adapt to large groups. In the same way, their individual survival skills could have stood out above average, allowing them to enjoy solitude.