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While researching a story on behaviors that can make you unhappy, I came across one especially intriguing study on a habit most of us are guilty of.
That habit is comparing yourself to other people. Science suggests there’s one key reason why it’s not a great idea: People can seem a lot happier and less troubled than they really are.
For the study, which was published in 2011, researchers at Stanford University, Syracuse University, and the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a series of experiments around people’s ability to accurately assess others’ emotional lives.
In one experiment, university first-years underestimated the number of negative emotional experiences (like having a fight or feeling homesick) and overestimated the number of positive emotional experiences (like going to a fun party or hanging out with friends) their peers had recently gone through.
Even when another group of first-years was asked to make similar estimates for people they were close to – friends, roommates, and romantic partners – they were way off.
Perhaps the most troubling study finding is that university students who really underestimated the number of negative emotional experiences others were dealing with reported lower well-being.
Of course, the researchers can’t say for sure that misjudging others’ emotional lives directly causes a decrease in well-being – it could also be that people who are feeling bad may assume everyone else is feeling great. Or, the relationship might work both ways: Feeling bad leads you to think everyone else is feeling great, which only makes you feel worse.
As a Slate article pointed out right after the study was published, our social media experiences might only exacerbate this phenomenon. When all your friends are posting photos of their happy families, and law-school admission letters, and exotic vacations, it seems reasonable to assume that they’re having a whole lot more fun than you are.
But when it comes to social media as well as IRL interactions, you’re probably only seeing a curated version of everyone else’s lives. Keep that in mind the next time you feel alone in your struggles – chances other that other people have been there too, and might even be able to provide some guidance.