Health & Wellness

Feel like everyone has more friends? You're not alone

We’ve all been through it: You move to a new city, start a new job or take classes in a new school and it feels like everyone else has way more friends than you do.

Don’t get too down on yourself: Other people are also feeling this way, a study published Thursday in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found. It’s common to overestimate how much your coworkers and pals socialize, which can make you feel bad, but also motivate you to make more friends.

It starts with a common scenario: When you’re feeling new, you’re vulnerable to believing everyone else’s lives are full of happy, social moments, said study co-author Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School.

“We hope this paper normalizes the idea that it’s OK to feel like others are more socially successful than you are when you move to a new community,” Whillans told TODAY. She became interested in the topic in part because of her own personal experience of moving from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The paper involved two studies conducted at the University of British Columbia. Researchers asked hundreds of freshmen about the number of friends they had made since starting school. They were then asked to estimate how many friends their peers had made. It turned out a greater proportion of students saw their peers as being much more socially connected.

Does everyone have more friends?

The second study was similar, but checked in with students over time and asked them to estimate how much time their peers spent socializing. It also had them rate their sense of well-being and belonging. Again, a greater proportion of students believed their peers had more friends and spent significantly more time socializing than they themselves did. Those who imagined other freshmen as social butterflies reported lower levels of well-being and belonging.

Much of this tendency to overestimate may come from observing people in public, Whillans said. When we’re new to a social environment, we feel uncertain and look for cues around us to understand our social networks. But those cues may be misleading.

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“I’m brand new to this campus here at Harvard and when I go for a walk around campus, I see people socializing and talking to each other in the cafeteria, at lunch,” Whillans noted.

That might lead you to think their lives are filled with happy, gregarious moments, but you don’t see what their emotional state is like when they’re alone. People in public tend to feel happier and suppress negative emotions, the paper notes. The lesson here: looks can be deceiving.

Being alone can be motivating

There’s also an upside to all this misperception. Thinking that others are doing a bit better than you may spur you to action, Whillans said. The freshmen who thought there was a small or moderate gap between the size of their social circle compared to others made more friends at the end of the year, the study found.

“It’s OK to feel like maybe you’re not doing as well as you want to socially,” Whillans said. “Feeling a little bit worse off can actually be motivating.”

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