Introducing Paleo-Happiness, Your New Excuse for Canceling Plans

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Photo: Spohn Matthieu/Getty Images

The Paleo diet trend has convinced many thousands to add butter to their coffee while avoiding potatoes and other delicious carb-y foods. The Paleo happiness trend, should it catch on, will see that you enjoy your butter coffee and carb-free lifestyle all by yourself. In the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham outlines an argument by two evolutionary psychologists who recently made the case for something they call the “savanna theory of happiness” — the idea that the things that made our ancestors happy should still be the things that make us happy, too.

The basics of this theory are supported by a large body of social-science research, not to mention common sense. People are happier when they interact more frequently with their close friends; people’s self-rated happiness tends to dip, on the other hand, when they live in more densely packed cities. (For a real life example of this, consider the 6 train at rush hour on a rainy weekday morning.)

But there’s a twist: These basic tenets of happiness don’t seem to apply to the smartest among us. “The effect of population density on life satisfaction was … more than twice as large for low-IQ individuals than for high-IQ individuals,” write the authors of this paper, Norman Li of Singapore Management University and Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics. The psychologists add that “more intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently.”

Maybe, Ingraham theorizes, this is because highly intelligent people are too busy pursuing highly intelligent things — writing books, working toward a cure for cancer — and so socializing ends up feeling like a burden, a distraction from their nobler pursuits. But Li and Kanazawa offer an alternate explanation, starting with an evolutionary premise:

The idea starts with the premise that the human brain evolved to meet the demands of our ancestral environment on the African savanna, where the population density was akin to what you’d find today in, say, rural Alaska (less than one person per square kilometer). Take a brain evolved for that environment, plop it into today’s Manhattan (population density: 27,685 people per square kilometer), and you can see how you’d get some evolutionary friction.

Perhaps, they argue, more highly intelligent people are better at adapting to modern life, which means crowded cities don’t make them as unhappy as the comparatively less intelligent; likewise, maybe social interactions don’t have the same cheering effect on their life satisfaction as their friendlier-but-dumber peers.

All of which is very interesting — until, that is, you consider the résumé of Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist who has made some strange, bold claims based on rather weak evidence in recent years. In 2011, he wrote a post for Psychology Today that was headlined “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” (That post has since been removed, but the internet never forgets; you can read the atrocity here.) He’s also argued that smarter populations are more likely to value monogamy, and that smarter people are more likely to be gay.

And so perhaps Kanazawa’s newest theory is as likely to be based in fact as the Paleo diet itself. Which is to say, perhaps it is not based in very much fact at all.