Is your social life really worse than others?

Do you think most people have richer social lives than you? Do you sometimes feel bad about yourself when you think about other people’s social lives?


If so, you’re not alone. In fact, you’ve got company – most people think others have a better social life then they do themselves.


Statistically, this isn’t possible – after all, if we all think our own social life is inferior, some of us must be wrong! We can’t all be living below-average social lives.


Nevertheless, people clearly have a ‘surprisingly grim outlook on their social lives’, notes Cornell psychologist Prof Thomas Gilovich in his study Home Alone: Why People Believe Others’ Social Lives Are Richer Than Their Own. In 11 studies involving over 3,200 people, Gilovich found ‘most people think that others lead richer and more active social lives than they do themselves.’


This bias could be seen across ‘multiple populations’, including college students, shoppers, online respondents, and people from different socio-economic groups.


What’s going on? Why do most of us mistakenly think our social life pales in comparison to others?


One reason, says Gilovich, is when you evaluate and compare your social life, you’re more likely to bring to mind people who are much more social than the average person – for example, trendsetters, socialites, extraverted folks who are the heart and soul of the party. Of course, these people are not a representative sample, but they come to mind the fastest.


Another obvious factor is social media. When you think about how your social life compares to others, you might think of people documenting their social bliss on Facebook or Instagram. Again, such photographs are not representative of a person’s actual day-to-day life. To use a musical analogy, you’re looking at the greatest hits of other people’s lives.


In fact, you might not even be looking at their greatest hits, but what appear to be their greatest hits. Facebook is often referred to as Fakebook precisely because people often use it to make their lives seem better than they really are.


Other factors can also cause us to overestimate how happy others are with their social lives. Firstly, it’s common for people to put on a happy face when socialising. If you ask someone how they’re doing, they’re unlikely to tell you they’re feeling socially anxious, or bored, or how they’d really prefer to be at home.


Secondly, there is a very simple reason why we tend to assume friends and acquaintances lead a more active life than they really do – every time we meet them, they’re socialising. As author and journalist Oliver Burkeman notes, we never see them home alone in their pyjamas, eating crisps while watching the X Factor and feeling sorry for themselves. We never see them ‘when they wake in the dark at 3am, wondering where their lives are headed’.


No, we meet them when they’re out, socialising. Just like they only meet you when you are out, socialising.



Other studies have also found we tend to mistakenly think other people have it easier than they really do. We underestimate other people’s negative emotions, note the authors of one study, appropriately titled Misery Has More Company Than People Think.


In their experiments, they found people ‘underestimated negative emotions and overestimated positive emotions even for well-known peers’. People ‘think they are more alone in their emotional difficulties than they really are’, they noted. People who were especially prone to thinking this way were more likely to ruminate, to feel lonely, and to be dissatisfied with their life.


In therapeutic terms, there are two key takeaways here. Firstly, remember everyone has their own private difficulties. Underestimating other people’s problems, idealising others’ social lives – it’s not a good idea to think this way. The more you think this way, the worse it is for your well-being.


Secondly, try to avoid the comparison game. Look at your life in absolute rather than relative terms. Are you happy? Are things going well for you? Try not to focus on other people’s lives – focus on your own.

(First published in Southern Star on 6/7/2023).