STANFORD (US) — Knowing that others hit rough patches in their personal lives or workplace is a good way to mitigate one’s own melancholy, according to a new study.
Previously, “no one had shown that people systematically underestimate how often others feel sad or upset,” says Benoît Monin, associate professor of organizational behavior and of psychology at Stanford University.
This misconception is linked to loneliness and unhappiness. “When you think everyone else is having fun, you think your life is not that great,” Monin says. “Perceptions—even erroneous ones—matter a great deal.”
The study is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Part of the problem is that negative emotions, like feeling sad, stressed, or lonely, aren’t usually displayed in public settings. For most people, a night out with friends is better than a night in with the remote, so we tend to be happier when spending time with our pals. But even if people are in a rough spot, say from relationship or financial woes, happy hour is no time to bring up bad news.
The result is that “people look at their friends’ smiles in social situations and think they’re always happy,” says Alex Jordan, the study’s first author and a recent psychology doctoral graduate who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College.
To confirm the difficulty of knowing when friends are feeling down, researchers surveyed college students about their emotional experiences and how often they put feelings like laughing or crying on public display. They also asked how often emotional feelings were shared with friends.
Negative emotions were nearly twice as likely to occur in private compared to positive emotions and were three times more likely to be intentionally hidden from others.
“You can’t take a happy face at face value,” Monin says.
In another study, participants were asked how often they had negative and positive emotional experiences, like arguing with a friend or having fun at a party. They were also asked to estimate how often their peers experienced the same types of emotions.
Most participants underestimated the prevalence of their peers’ negative emotional experiences and overestimated the prevalence of the positive ones. Misperceptions occurred even among close friends.
Participants in their first semester of college recorded their emotional experiences in private online diaries for 10 weeks. The participants also had three friends judge and describe how happy or sad they seemed. Repeatedly, friends thought the participants were happier than they truly were.
In another study, the researchers looked for a correlation between participants’ perceptions of how often their peers experienced certain emotions and the participants’ own emotional well-being.
Participants who sensed less sadness in their peers said they were lonelier and spent more time brooding over their own problems. And those who thought their peers had lots of positive experiences reported being less satisfied with their own lives.
“Thinking you’re alone in your emotional challenges is, understandably, not much fun,” Jordan says.
He first considered the idea that people might view others’ lives as happier than they really are after noticing some of his friends were upset after reading others’ posts on Facebook.
“They felt disappointed with their lives when they logged onto Facebook and browsed the apparently ‘perfect’ lives presented by their peers,” Jordan explains. “I wondered whether people might harbor a more general illusion that others’ lives are cheerier than they actually are.”
“Paradoxically,” Monin says, “if we told others how unhappy we are, we would probably all be happier in the long run.”
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Elmira College contributed to the study.
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