I haven’t been out for days… Apart from Saturday evening when some friends came round for dinner (armed with pizza) I haven’t seen another living soul for nearly a week, although the neighbourhood fox whizzed by the house the other evening looking for scraps. If it weren’t for the BBC, the world could have ended and I wouldn’t know a thing about it. I’d do well on a desert island -I often think of it as an attractive alternative lifestyle. Right now I’m reading an article in the British Journal of Psychology. It tells me that smart people may be far happier with their own company than in the company of others. Now I’m thinking about that desert island again.
Psychologists think that the more frequently people with above average intelligent socialise with friends, the less satisfied they are with life. Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Norman Li of Singapore Management University are my new best friends. Their view challenges the modern wisdom that the more social contact we have, the happier we should be. I have long known that this is, er… bollocks.
Unusually for an entertainer, I’m not really a people person – I hate parties, especially show-business parties – I hate noisy crowded places and small talk and I refuse to go anywhere where the music is so loud you can’t hear yourself think.
Of course, I understand that social interaction has been a valuable part of the survival strategy – even I need it occasionally and I can handle small intimate groups made up of people I already know and have things in common with, but the rest of the world is not very much to my liking.
With the growth of large cities and centres of commerce, we no longer live in small towns and villages where everyone knows everyone else – and everyone else’s business. Life today is filled with meaningless encounters with faceless strangers. The Savannah Theory, which dictates that the kind of existence that made our ancestors content, no longer applies in the 21st century.
In the modern hectic world most people now inhabit, it is large-scale population density that affects levels of human happiness rather than the more manageable close-knit societies we were once used to and comfortable with. So it’s interesting the researchers have found that people who live in densely populated areas said they had lower levels of life satisfaction.
But among the very intelligent, dissatisfaction with this new sort of existence is at an all-time high. Larger populations offer more frequent opportunities for social contact and it’s hard to turn down invitations without appearing rude, or when commercial interests may be at stake.
Kanazawa and Li think that although smarter individuals can more readily adapt to modern life, they don’t have the same social needs as their ancestors in order to enjoy life, or even to find their way in the modern world. The savannah theory no longer applies because there are just so many social opportunities to choose from.
This makes sense – if you’re someone who regularly gets stuck in traffic, or worse, finds themselves crammed sardine-like in the London Underground, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. Conversely, if the ‘urban-rural happiness gradient’ is accurate, you will see that people who live in small communities really are happier.
The brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors adapted to life on the African plains, when populations were sparse. On average, they lived in groups of around 150 and social interaction was crucial to survival, especially in terms of co-operation and finding a mate. Equally important however was that there was plenty of space. When I lived in an apartment in Manchester, right in the centre of the city, with access to the theatres and the art galleries, the restaurants and libraries, I was one of 200 people living in the same building. Apart from the odd encounter in the lift, when both would grudgingly acknowledge the other’s existence with a polite grunt, I didn’t know one of them – not even their names, never mind what they did.
There is a mismatch between the way we evolved and the comparatively busy lives we lead today – it’s much harder to keep up with everything, even though life is more comfortable (instant hot water, electricity, TV) and a good deal more secure.
But, for the most intelligent among us, there is conflict between aspiring to greater goals and being tied to our evolutionary past. Wasting time with people is counterproductive if they have nothing new or significant to offer. Intelligent people realise that spending three years of your life in traffic or engaging in trivial and pointless gossip with people you hardly know is a waste. Which is why, in the end, I realised that I’m happier where I started, in little old Conwy, with its quaint friendliness, its characters, its people who all know each other (and each other’s business) and its castle.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.