Is Everyone Having More Fun Than You?

Our ideas about others' lives are prone to exaggeration.

By Matt Huston, published March 1, 2018 - last reviewed on May 12, 2018

pzAxe/Shutterstock

As you spend a solitary Friday night on the couch and wonder what everyone else is doing, are you more likely to imagine that they're at festive dinners and parties—or that they're spending their own quiet evening alone? Many of us hold the pessimistic and implausible belief that the people around us have superior social lives, new research indicates. The ease with which social butterflies capture our attention could feed this assumption.

"If you think about athleticism, LeBron James comes to mind," says Thomas Gilovich, a social psychologist at Cornell University—though few of us measure our sporting talent against that of a basketball star. Yet when we think of something that we believe many people can do well, like socializing, we tend to compare ourselves to our most socially adept friends and acquaintances. 

In a series of studies, Gilovich and colleagues asked participants to consider both their own social lives and those of people they knew. The participants guessed, on average, that others had a greater number of friends than they did, attended more parties, and were closer to the "inner circle" of their own social groups. 

Some people have a fuller calendar than others, but the average person's social life can't be below average. We may underrate our social profiles in part because, while we're attuned to the highly popular and the exploits they share on social media, we have limited awareness of how less outgoing people spend their time. A related phenomenon, Gilovich explains, is pluralistic ignorance—having a false sense of how others feel because their thoughts are not available to us. Similar to the way college students overestimate their peers' comfort with drinking, he says, "everyone thinks that everyone else's social life is better than theirs."

Social riches are not the only kind about which we seem to have a slanted view. We may misunderstand the lives of enviable people in general. Study participants who thought about especially smart, attractive, popular, or wealthy people estimated that such people experience more positive everyday moments and fewer negative ones than those with lesser assets. But one study showed that the actual difference between the lives of relatively high- and low-income people—based on how they judged their own daily ups and downs—was smaller than raters in the middle-income range anticipated.

Selective social imagination seems to be at play here, too: When we think of the popular and gifted, we're not focusing on "what it's like to be them on a random Tuesday afternoon," away from the spotlight, according to University of Chicago psychologist Ed O'Brien, a co-author of the studies. "Since we never see those everyday moments in somebody else's life, we forget to account for them when we imagine the person's life as a whole." Those who were asked to think more carefully about the lives of advantaged people (by describing what they might do every hour on an average day, for example) walked away with more balanced evaluations—and attested to feeling less envious.

Facebook image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock