We spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to other people.
According to social comparison theory, much of our sense of self-worth and even our sense of personal identity comes from how we see ourselves "stacking up" to other people we may know. These can be friends, family members, neighbors, or, in many cases, famous people we might never meet, but who have accomplished things we wish we could do ourselves.
Unfortunately, this sort of comparison can often lead to a sense of despair, if we regard ourselves as falling short of the standard these people have set for us. Such despair can shape how we view our careers, our accomplishments, our personal appearance, and just about every other aspect of our personal lives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, relying on social comparison can also make us feel inadequate in terms of how we view our social life — how many parties or social gatherings we attend, how many dates we have, how many people we know, etc. — in other words, our "social resume," which for a variety of reasons never seems to be as spectacular as the highly social lives of other people. It also ties into the dreaded "fear of missing out," or FOMO, the persistent belief that something exciting is happening somewhere else, and we are missing out.
Studies have consistently found evidence for this effect. In recent years, however, much of this research has focused on the influence of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Since self-promotion is pretty much the main purpose of these platforms, we are often besieged by pictures and videos of people attending social shindigs or major events that can make our own lives seem drab by comparison. Not surprisingly, many Facebook users are increasingly reporting becoming depressed.
Just how common is this feeling of social pessimism? And what can we do about it? A new article recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology attempts to answer these questions, as well as to explore the processes that shape our social judgments. Lead author Sebastian Deri of Cornell University and a team of researchers conducted 11 studies examining how participants rated their own social lives in comparison to what they believed about other people. These studies used a variety of methods and populations, including online surveys conducted through Amazon's Mechanical Turk, surveys of people recruited through local shopping malls, and interviews with undergraduate students.
Whatever the methodology, though, the overall trend appeared to be the same: No matter how social comparison was measured, participants tended to regard their social lives as being relatively impoverished compared to those of other people they knew. Whether they were asked about the size of their social networks, the number of parties they attended, the number of times they dined out, or how often they got together with extended family, participants invariably saw other people as having more fun. They also tended to see other people as being more popular in general, as well as being part of the "in" group from which they themselves were excluded.
According to Deri and his co-authors, this sense of pessimism seems to be based on a persistent flaw in how we judge our social lives. First, we tend to base this kind of judgment on what we happen to know about the social lives of other people. Unfortunately, when we mentally search for examples of how other people are socially, we tend to focus on unusually social people we know who always seem to be on the go. They are the ones we are most likely to hear about, whether through social media or word of mouth, and naturally our social lives are going to seem much more drab as a result. That these social paragons are hardly representative of most people we might know doesn't seem to matter all that much.
Another obvious contributor to this social pessimism is the influence of social media. Certainly we are more likely to be overwhelmed with images, videos, and posts about other people doing fun things, so it's hardly surprising that spending time online often leads to feelings of loneliness or dissatisfaction.
For the most part, people don't post selfies of themselves vegged out in front of the television or eating a frozen dinner. If you doubt the power that social media can have on how we view our social lives, consider a 2015 study by the Happiness Research Institute, which found that people randomly assigned to quit Facebook for just one week reported feeling both less lonely and happier with their social lives.
This effect is hardly limited to social media; For people who are naturally shy or introverted, it's hard not to notice that the outgoing and extroverted people around them seem to be having a better time. This inevitable belief that someone, somewhere, is having a good time that you're missing out on is also going to have an adverse effect on your self-esteem.
How do we get around this sense of pessimism? Aside from choosing more appropriate social role models, we may also need to reevaluate what it means to have a rich social life. Though other people may have more Facebook friends than we do, and attend more social events, that doesn't necessarily suggest that their social lives are more meaningful. In other words, we need to look at the quality of our friendships, as well as the overall quantity of friends or acquaintances we may have. It may also help to pick more representative people with whom to compare ourselves, rather than those outliers who lead very different lives.
Ultimately, as Deri and his co-authors point out in their conclusions, the persistent belief that other people are living fuller lives than we are is often just an illusion that we make for ourselves. Breaking free of it is rarely easy, but it's certainly worth the effort to try.
Deri, Sebastian,Davidai, Shai,Gilovich, Thomas (2017). Home alone: Why people believe others’ social lives are richer than their own. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 113(6), 858-877