But there is one area where this positive self-regard fails us, and that is when it comes to how we experience emotions. We consistently believe that other people are happier and more socially connected than we are, and those beliefs—founded or not—have a profound impact on our own happiness.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Harvard’s medical and business schools recently tested this. In a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the team surveyed nearly 400 first-year students at UBC—a group of people more sensitive and anxious than most about making new friends and fitting in. They asked the students questions about their social lives, such as the number of friends and acquaintances they had and the amount of time they spent alone versus with others. Then they asked them to estimate how their peers would answer those questions. They also gave them a battery of tests assessing their mental health and well-being.
A majority of students (55%) assumed that other students had more friends than they did, while only 26% believed they had more friends than the average classmate. On average, subjects estimated they spent about 31% of their time alone, while estimating that classmates spent only 22% of their time solo.
Unsurprisingly, study subjects reporting many friends and acquaintances ranked high in well-being. But the way people perceived their own social life relative to others had a significant effect as well. Simply believing that they had fewer friends than others did—regardless of whether it was true or not—was enough to make people feel worse about themselves.
“Even if you’re someone who is doing pretty well socially, if you think everyone else has more friends, you experience lower levels of well-being and belonging,” said Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who led the study as a doctoral candidate at UBC.
The issue comes down to observability, Whillans said. We experience the full spectrum of our own lives and know how much of it is occupied with solitary tasks like studying, working, or sitting home alone with Netflix and a takeout container. We see other people out in social situations and unconsciously assume that’s how they spend most of their time, without taking into account the fact that they, too, pass lonely hours.
FOMO isn’t all bad: We’re more motivated to close a small gap than a big one, and when researchers checked in on the students halfway through the school year, the ones who believed they had slightly fewer friends than others had actually made more friends. But the suspicion that peers are far more popular than oneself does more harm than good—and is probably unfounded anyway.