Yes, Paleo-Happiness is a Thing

A few months ago, I went full-millennial and tried the paleo diet.

I did my homework, stalked at least a dozen paleo Instagram accounts, and was armed, dangerous, and ready to crush it.

But after a week of eating like a Tyrannosaurus Rex with red meat, leaves, oddly textured collagen bars, and thick, buttery coffee littering my desk, I was over the whole thing and promptly found some dessert.

Even though I failed as a cavewoman, the paleo logic makes a ton of sense. Our genetic constitution hasn’t budged much since Homo sapiens sapiens stepped on the scene about 40,000 years ago. So why do we think fireball shots and french fries are within our digestive wheelhouse?

Oh that’s right, because they’re addictive and delicious. But that’s not the point. Don’t worry, this is not another healthy eating blog. 

The point is that as we understand our present and our future, it’s important to consider the past. And just like evolution has influenced the dietetic demands of our body, it has also influenced the stuff that make us psychologically happy.

That’s right. Paleo-happiness is a thing. And it has really interesting implications for how we should navigate our on-demand, hyper-stimulated, over-imbibed social worlds.

The hypothesis is called the “Savanna Theory of Happiness” and it states that what made our ancestors happy should make us happy too. By fusing evolution, environment, and social psychology, researchers are trying to crack the code of subjective well-being.

And so today’s rant is brought to you in part by a recent study that found people are happier when they: 1. Live in less densely populated areas and, 2. Spend more time with friends.

This lines up with the “urban-rural happiness gradient.” Happiness actually declines as you move from rural areas to small towns to suburbs to cities. Our ancestors lived in small bands of about 150 hunter-gatherers with whom they had frequent and close contact, so the most of us are happiest when we have small, tightly knit tribes.

Anthropologically referred to as #squadgoals

But there’s a gaping caveat to this finding. These findings are completely reversed for the extremely intelligent. 

The brainiest folks are happier, relative to less intelligent peers, when they: 1. Live in urban environments and 2. Spend less spend with friends. 

You read that right. Smart people are happier when they spend less time with friends.

The science behind it goes something like this…

The smarter you are, the faster you adapt to novel environments, like a big city with lots of humans. An evolutionarily unusual environment – like Manhattan – isn’t supposed to be easy to process. So while the less intelligent may feel anxious and overwhelmed when their tribe explodes from 150 to 8.4 million, the intelligent can override a knee-jerk freak out response and recognize they’re not in imminent danger.

Except for cabs. Watch out for the yellow ones, they don’t stop.

But if the highly intelligent are uniquely capable of embracing radical novelty like highly populated environments, then why are they less happy when they spend more time with friends?

Researchers believe this is likely because smart individuals often, 1. Prioritize intellectual pursuits and careers over social relationships, and 2. Have enough cognitive tools in their belt to become non-reliant on the hunter-gatherer social network.

Smart people can use intellectual activities as a replacement for the happiness and security evolutionarily derived from social relationships. They can leverage their brainpower to navigate evolutionarily unfamiliar environments. And they can even order Seamless to ensure they don’t starve. When you combine smarts and technology, a shift in social dynamics is all but inevitable.

Our ancestors evolved into social creatures out of necessity. And this necessity no longer fully exists. We have reached a inflection point in Homo sapiens sapiens story where living dynamics and social relationships that were once obligatory have become niceties.

So could friendships be the next vestigial organ? The answer, to a certain degree, might be yes. At least for smart people.

This will play out in interesting and cringeworthy ways as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual assistants, partners, and friends enter the mainstream. Those who are least bound by the “Savanna Theory of Happiness” and are not reliant on relationships or immediate environments for survival will likely be first to outsource their social networks.

Don’t take it personally, you’re just not mission critical anymore.

Until I have to worry about spilling on my date for fear of short-circuiting his wiring, I wouldn’t jump to abandon your friends or move to the country. But I do believe it’s important to track the pulse of this trend as social psychology, evolution, and wicked fast technological innovation play in the sandbox for the first time in human history.

And in the meantime, it might explain why some people need friends while you like friends, why you get excited when plans are cancelled, or why environments like Coachella make you want to cry.

Don’t fight it. It’s in your bloodline.

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