Toward a savanna theory of happiness?

We propose the savanna theory of happiness, which suggests that it is not only the current consequences of a given situation but also its ancestral consequences that affect individuals’ life satisfaction and explains why such influences of ancestral consequences might interact with intelligence. We choose two varied factors that characterize basic differences between ancestral and modern life – population density and frequency of socialization with friends – as empirical test cases. As predicted by the theory, population density is negatively, and frequency of socialization with friends is positively, associated with life satisfaction. 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. This study highlights the utility of incorporating evolutionary perspectives in the study of subjective well-being.

That is from Li and Kanazawa, via Neuroskeptic, file under speculative.


The interaction between life satisfaction and socialization and intelligence is interesting, and the general point on the correlation between population density and socialization and life satisfaction makes sense, but none of this ties into any sort of "evolutionary perspective" or "ancestral consequences."

Indeed, after reading through the abstract I still don't understand what "ancestral consequences" are. Maybe I am being pedantic, but the phrase looks like a contradiction in terms.

I like theory expressed as a story, so I like the savanna theory of happiness. But I will point out the flaw: the trait of extroversion and introversion. Here's the way I describe the difference: for an extrovert, she is energized by being with others, but for the introvert, he is exhausted by it. Then there are subcategories of extroversion and introversion, one of which I occupy: I am energized in a social setting with six, eight, ten, twelve people, but I am exhausted by a crowd. Everyone really is unique, which makes average almost but not quite meaningless.

"Here’s the way I describe the difference: for an extrovert, she is energized by being with others, but for the introvert, he is exhausted by it."

That's the definition that I used to go by, and I classified myself as an introvert. Then I did several variants of classing (Myers & Briggs) and the results were strong extrovert. At this point, I think the energized vs exhausted criteria is wrong.

Generally, extroversion is seen as a trait because of the lexical hypothesis for personality (aka, "If there are lots of words like this, it must be a major dimension of human personality").

As a trait, seems arguable that instead, it's one of those things you might want to test by just looking chucking a factor analysis over a broad range of measures of socialisation and seeing if there really is a single dimension of more vs less sociability (and what people actually internally think and feel about it is sort of besides the point).

For a lot of folks being classified an introvert is as horrifying as being classified an imbecile; or in Trump's terms, "low energy". My ten year old Godson provided much-needed insight when he told his friends not to interrupt me when I was doing something because I couldn't multi-task, a trait that for my generation was meaningless but for his generation is like breathing. Maybe that's why crowds exhaust me - I can't multi-task.

On the money with this one. It hasn't happened to me yet, but someday soon, they will be whispering and looking at me.

Nobody multitasks, they just do a crappy job at many things in a given time frame.

Some people can actually multitask.

For a simple example, consider the hotel attendant who is taking a reservation on the phone while handing out towels to a guest. Of course, the physical body cannot be in two places at once, and you don't have six arms, so you have to turn from the computer, stop the reservation, get the towel, hand over the towel, return to the computer ... but what makes it multitasking is that you did all the cognitive work of receiving information about the towel request, preparing to get the towel, and the moment where you were simultaneously physically

What you're saying is that a hand cannot be in two places at once. But the body can do one thing while the mind works on another, and this facilitates rapid switching and in some cases effective multitasking.

When people multitask, speed and efficiency at each sub-task go down and error rates go up, compared to single-tasking. Lower output and more errors are more tolerated in some situations than in others.

I'm an introvert and my wife is an extrovert. She gets exhausted by groups because she finds herself driving all the conversations. I don't talk much and go with the flow. The only thing that exhausts me is having to pay attention to all my wife's talking for more than 3 hours at a time. I don't think exhaustion or like for crowds is anything to do with extroversion. It's how much you talk.

The pretty well documented idea that time in nature increases well-being is certainly in line with this savannah thing.

I liked that study when I saw it.

I've wondered since how and if the type of natural environment matters, being I hike in the Sonoran desert with cactii and sagebrush, not a forest.

I think the differing results based on intelligence can be expressed as: Everyone hates being surrounded by idiots.

Tell me about it!

With a low population density, the very clever person has a low chance of meeting another to talk to.

I think that depends on your tolerance for talking to people you consider your intellectual inferiors. L. Ron Hubbard made a game out of it and seems to have enjoyed that.

Thanks for the observation, and the laugh. A small reservation - I might differ on LRB's actual intelligence, but it would appear you've got a valid point on the label "intellectual inferiors".

I am not sure it is a "game," but I think it is important to remember that anyone you meet can tell you something true .. including the sorts of truths that clever people tend to forget.

Low or high density, a very clever person has a low chance of meeting another... if he relies on random interactions (because the per interaction chance of meeting a highly intelligent person is hardly going to change).

He has a better chance of meeting another highly intelligently person *without anyone moving* in the high density scenario though, I'd grant.

Intelligence can provide mental "toys" that allow one to amuse oneself. Randomly chosen people are likely to be less interesting than one's own mental activities.

More likely highly intelligent people just have rich inner lives -- they are not bored if they have nothing to do but think. Depending on what kind of thinking needs to be done at a given time, they might find social activity an annoying distraction.

The theory might be sound, but I would take the statistical analysis with a grain of salt. Andrew Gelman has properly debunked several prior statistical analyses of Kanazawa's.

the main association is reversed among the extremely intelligent. More intelligent individuals experience lower life satisfaction with more frequent socialization with friends

If (if) that held up, I could imagine a couple of reasons:

- Interaction with friends compensates for misery: If you look at the General Social Survey, you find that the less intelligent (lower Wordsum) have much lower life happiness. I'd imagine this is probably because low intelligence is associated with lower health (causality runs both ways but mainly from lower health>intelligence) and with lower wealth, less leisure and satisfying work and a harder life generally.

If friends compensate for the slings and arrows of life, by allowing you to gain social support, and the intelligent don't need that as much, the associations of spending time with friends could change. Particularly if your friends tend to be less intelligent than you are (and to need support for their life hardships themselves)!

- The highly intelligent are more freethinking and considered: When asked to respond to a question, a low intelligence person may tend to think, in brief, "Of course I'm happy, that's what my friends and family and the social ideal tell me I should be". Just to go straight to what their friends and family have told them, without engaging brain. While the highly intelligent person may be more likely to give a considered and individual response, overthink it, egghead their response, and ignore the social information telling them that they're happy. Under this one, the highly intelligent would not necessarily be more crotchety or more in pain during their daily life, or to have fewer moments of joy. Just more likely to overthink it, because they're freethinking individuals.

On freethinking and intelligence - I wonder about this sometimes.

I add this: very intelligent people can also fancifully delude themselves into thinking that they are freethinking about something, being blinded by self confidence in a sort of way.

That sort of being blinded by self confidence because you know you're smart can be worse than being dumb and deluded. Most truly dumb people know they aren't that smart and can be convinced that they actually aren't very sure about something, even when they still hold a strong contrary opinion.

But a very intelligent person? Their ideological preferences may have been justified and defend so carefully over long decades, that they will never be persuaded to think that they might be affected by some sort of groupthink, and therefore cannot be persuaded to seriously consider a second side of an argument, for the very fact that this is perceived as an attack on their intellect.

Indeed, there are few better ways to learn than to be able to admit that you previously held a wrong or misguided view on something. If you can't do that, you may as well just wind up the doll and leave it stuck in the same patterns until the end of days.

I have known many people who "knew" they were smart, and believed that everything they knew was true, and, as Nathan W pointed out, that can be a difficult mind-set to leave behind, no matter how important it might be to do so. In each and every case, a great drama of their lives, as far as I can guess, would (or will be) found in the moments where they realized they were "not all that", as the expression went back in the 90s. I do not know how any of them ended up after my way and theirs parted, but when I think of them I like to think with hope of the belated changes of heart that were felt by Wallace Stevens (I knew once a poet almost - well, if you define almost in a very expansive way - as good with words as him) and Kenneth Clark and Oscar Wilde and that charismatically attractive poet of seedy English hotels that Larkin included in his anthology (I always forget her name, I remember her as the "poet who disappeared" but according to the tabloids all that happened is she rented a cheap apartment for 40 years or so near her favorite seaside Evangelical church) and John Wayne and Lee Atwater and Mortimer Adler and my favorite of all these high V high M characters, the poor little guy married to Claire Bloom that Olivier played on PBS when they filmed the novel of a friend of a friend (of Olivier's, not of mine).

Rosemary Tonks.

Nathan W: You should also post this regarding Harvard faculty.

I had kept it strictly general.

I'm not sure why I might highlight Harvard as an example. I was actually thinking of poorly educated people who fancy themselves rather smart. You know, the people who's been nowhere, never had any relevant experience in anything, but are 100% convinced that by virtue of their superior intelligence that they have a better understanding of all manner of issues from local to global. I think they tend to do quite a lot better at the local level.

Breathtaking stupidity requires lots of intelligence.

Children tend to all like grasslands, which is why parks and lawns are popular. At puberty, people tend to imprint on whatever type of landscape they are living in then, but often retain a fondness for large grassed areas. This helps explain the extraordinary amount of America devoted to golf courses, as you can see looking out your airplane window while taking off and landing.

Why the preference for short grass though? Was it so dangerous for us to fail to see predators or food in the tall grass? Or is the short grass preference some sort of modern construct?

Don't know.

If you were a Wooly Mammoth hunter, well-cropped grass was a sign that there was game around.

My guess is that humans are most comfortable at the edge of grasslands: e.g. the interfaces of grassland-water (Pebble Beach) or grassland-forest (Augusta National) or urban-grassland (the Plaza Hotel).

Excellent comment!

>Why the preference for short grass though? Was it so dangerous for us to fail to see predators or food in the tall grass?

I'm going to use the preference-for-short-grass-as-a-vestigial-trait theory on my wife to attempt to get out of mowing the yard this weekend. If it works, evolutionary psychology will have proven itself a useful field.


Carl Sagan covered this topic in:

Hum... May be because high grass itches.

And snakes and big cats are well hidden in tall grass.

Small children like grasslands, but bigger kids prefer trees (they can climb them, play hide-and-seek around them), and adults definitely prefer trees. The stereotypical suburban house shown on TV always has trees in the gardens (front and rear). A popular day trip from San Francisco is to the trees at Muir Woods; I've never seen advertised a day trip to grasslands.

My library only has that journal with a one-year delay, so can't really comment on the specifics. But I totally agree with the general idea that our instinctive emotional responses to modern situations are to a large extent shaped by the circumstances in which we evolved. But why "savanna"? Is the Omo River Valley and the East African Rift savanna? If you're going to propose this kind of theory in an academic journal you really should read the paleoanthropology.

My pet theory is that gossiping about celebrities is a development from gossiping about the alphas and would-be-next alphas of cave clans, but I guess that's obvious.

I think they use the term somewhat artistically. Rift Valley definitely isn't savannah, and I doubt they are naive as to such facts.

Not sure about the early gossip idea. I imagine that it would have been more direct stuff in group setting than talking behind people's backs. I think that if taking behind people's backs (gossip) had been so common earlier on, that we would have evolved some understanding that it can lead to all manner of grief. But, I think this is something that most people have to learn from experience, whether first hand or not.

I don't see why living in small clans precludes people talking behind each others' backs. I'd recommend reading up on chimp behavior. They're very conspiratorial.

The soundproofing isn't as good outside, among other things.

There surely must have been some level of gossip though. Hard to even fathom what they might have been on about.

There are a lot of predators on the savanna. That's why people live in groups. More safety. Fewer intellectuals .. they are fed to predators.

Urban intellectuals agree: hell is other people.

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