Dumb people. They have it all. So untortured. So oblivious. But now it seems that there are even more benefits to being just a little bit dumb. Two recent studies suggest that stupid people have more friends. It also suggests that those with more friends—who may or may not be stupid—feel less pain. In fact, according to a University of Oxford study, they’re flooded with so many endorphins that they feel better than those on morphine (i.e., better than folks on one of the most powerful opiates in existence). Stupid people, 1. Smarty pantses, 0.
The Book Nerd vs. The Cheerleader
So let’s get into the perks to being a little bit dumb. Evolutionary psychologists Satoshia Kanazawa and Norma Li recently found that, in general, happiness increases in correlation to a decrease in population density; in English, that means that more meaningful interactions equal more happiness for most people. However, people who are “extremely intelligent” are actually happier when they don’t spend time with people they care about. Stupid people coast along with a slightly lower level of satisfaction in their social lives, but there’s more socializing, which makes up the difference. Imagine a nerd, hiding alone behind a pile of books, only coming out for a rare solo coffee date. (This hypothetical person is not me, I swear.)
That person, say Li and Kanazawa, sets herself up to need a higher emotional payoff from a smaller number of relationships. Compare that to the person who plays a team sport, works with the public, has a family or a domestic partner, and keeps up with a large number of friends and acquaintances. These folks have easier access to others, and although not every interaction will be meaningful or positive, it means that the overall effect is positive.
Which Came First—the Lack of Pleasure or the Depression?
Katerina Johnson, the smarty pants doctoral student at Oxford who wrote the study on the correlation between social networks and pain, said that the data suggests a negative feedback loop between loneliness and feeling good. “The endorphin system may be disrupted in psychological disorders such as depression,” she said. “This may be part of the reason why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and become socially withdrawn.” A lack of pleasure can lead to depression, and depression dampens pleasure sensors in the brain. This seems like a no-brainer to smart people, who tend to isolate and have a higher incidence of mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders.
So how does this prove, you may ask, that all this dumb popularity is better than getting high? Well, Johnson’s study was simple: she asked participants to answer a questionnaire about the first two social network layers, which is the people we interact with weekly and monthly. Then, they performed a wall sit—squatting against the wall with knees at a 90° angle and a straight back—for as long as possible. People with more friends lasted longer in this stress test, regardless of their fitness level. Then Johnson compared the effect of endorphin rush of thinking about friends to morphine and it turned out that happiness and excitement are more powerful than the almighty painkiller.
Earlier scientific research has underscored one important fact: people with lots of friends and meaningful relationships tend to be happier, have fewer health issues, and live longer. Vibrant seniors, for example, have full social lives, enjoy time with their families, and don’t feel isolated or left behind. Terminally ill people, or those coping with chronic illness, also benefit from meaningful interactions. Love, it seems, is the secret ingredient for a rich, beautiful life. Highly intelligent people—think Einstein-level smart—have a harder time accessing that kind of happiness because “they think and see the world differently,” according to a Mensa representative. Lower intelligence makes the world seem like a friendlier place.
Fit? Stressed? You’re Probably A Loner
There were two other important findings in the study. People with a high fitness level and people with high stress levels were likely to have fewer friends. Johnson said, “There may be a more interesting explanation—since both physical and social activities promote endorphin release, perhaps some people use exercise as an alternative means to get their ‘endorphin rush’ rather than socializing.” In other words, Soul Cycle, 0; friends: 1.
So, what’s the lesson here? Scientifically speaking, ignorance really is bliss—or, at the very least, less painful than knowing too much. Oh, and if you’re missing your former opiate high, get out there and make some pals.