This article was originally published May 23, 2020, and has since been updated.
The psychology of happiness is well-studied, and at this point we have a fairly solid understanding of what, in general, makes most of us happy. Activities like dancing, or going for a walk in the woods, help us to feel joyful and calm. Singing and music can improve our mood as well.Most psychologists will agree, however, that spending time with good friends is arguably the most effective way to induce happiness. Researchers have found, however, that not everyone derives the same pleasure from socializing. Brilliant people do things a little differently.
Socializing Doesn’t Make Highly Intelligent People as Happy
Researchers Norman Li and Satoshi Kanazawa recently published their study in the British Journal of Psychology that found that exceptionally intelligent people do not derive as much happiness from socializing as the rest of us. These people, in fact, tend to be happier when they are left alone more often .
Li and Kanazawa surveyed over fifteen thousand people between the ages of 18 and 28 and found that being around dense crowds tended to lead to lower levels of happiness while being with friends led to greater levels of happiness.
This data, however, did not ring true for those of exceptional intelligence. The researchers cite the Savannah Theory of Happiness, which explains that life satisfaction is influence by the way our ancestors would have reacted to an event, not just by what is happening in the present moment.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that our brains may have trouble dealing with situations that are specific to our modern-day because they have been designed for and adapted to the conditions of an ancestral environment.
The difference between our world today and that of our ancestors is that we tend to spend time around more people, but less of that time is spent with friends. More of us live in densely packed urban areas, which are not conducive to establishing close relationships.
This has been shown to lead to anxiety and depression, however, the researchers of this study found that this has less of an impact on highly intelligent people’s brains- in other words, highly intelligent people are less affected by the Savannah theory.
“In general, more intelligent individuals are more likely to have ‘unnatural’ preferences and values that our ancestors did not have,” said Kanazawa. “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.” 
Essentially, extremely smart people are less likely to value the same things as their ancestors. This may explain why urbanites tend to have higher than average intelligence compared to those living in rural areas- they are better able to live in these “unnatural” settings.
Read: New Experiment Reveals Just How Disturbingly Clever Crows Really Are
How Large Groups Affect Happiness
The study points to the average group sizes of our ancient ancestors, and how these group sizes support the Savannah theory.
The average size of hunter-gatherer groups, neolithic villages in ancient Mesopotamia, and other ancient groups of people was about 150 people. The researchers explain that our brains evolved for functioning in groups of about that size, and that when groups get larger than 150 to 200 people, they tend to split in two to facilitate better communication and problem-solving.
Larger groups, however, appeared to have a more negative effect on individuals with average intelligence, whereas our more intelligent ancestors demonstrated greater strategic flexibility and innate ingenuity, allowing them (and now their ancestors) to be better able to adapt to larger groups .
Friends Make Most of us Happy
For most of us, having good friendships improves our overall satisfaction with life, because they give us a feeling of relatedness, of being needed, and they provide a way of sharing experiences.
This need for relationships can also be explained by the Savannah theory, since for our ancestors, friendships and alliances were crucial to survival. Our ancestors needed a tribe for group hunting, food-sharing, reproduction, and group child-rearing.
Highly intelligent people, however, tend to feel happier alone than when they are with people. Why this is true remains unclear, but it could be because these people are more aspirational and goal-oriented, and may perceive having others around as being distracting or annoying .
The researchers did find, however, that spending more time socializing can be an indicator of higher intelligence as well, so more research needs to be done to determine why there is this contradiction .
Read: “Humankind is greedy, stupid and the greatest threat to Earth,” – Stephen Hawking
Intelligence and Alone Time Does Not Necessarily Work in Reverse
So if you’re reading this thinking that spending more time alone will make you smarter, you may want to reconsider canceling your Friday night plans. Likewise, if you do enjoy spending time alone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a genius. The correlation between the two is more nuanced than that.
On the flip side, if you do enjoy socializing and spending time with friends, it also doesn’t mean that you’re unintelligent- this is the first study of its kind, and certainly, more research needs to be done.
That being said, if you find you enjoy being by yourself to work on a project, learn a new skill, or hammer away at your goals, you may not be a loner or even antisocial; you could just be smarter than the average person.
Keep Reading: It’s science: Giving experiences instead of toys boosts your kid’s intelligence and happiness
- “Evolution Made Really Smart People Long to Be Loners.” Inverse. Sarah Sloat. December 6, 2016.
- “Here’s why intelligent people are happiest alone.” We Forum. November 27, 2018.
- “Why the Most Intelligent People Love Spending Time Alone.” INC. Jeff Haden.