Do you ever get the sense that everyone else seems more together, sorted and happier than you? Over many years, working therapeutically with my clients, I have heard this in many guises, an anecdotal observation borne out by research. In Misery has More Company than People Think, a study of college students, the authors report that we tend to overestimate how happy others are. While 78% of those taking part in the study reported feeling depressed they estimated that only 52% of their peers did, while 56% reported feeling lonely on a Saturday night they estimated that only 38% of their peers did and while 94% reported feeling overwhelmed they estimated that 78% of their peers did.
“If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.“ Montesquieu
The problem is when we assume everyone else has got it sorted we tend to hide behind a facade of ‘being normal’ or ‘keeping it together’ ourselves. Consequently, on the face of it we appear to be doing just fine. Often it seems that the less ‘together’ someone feels the more they overcompensate by presenting a fully in control, persona (e.g. as the ‘perfect mum’, the ‘high achiever’ or by always looking perfect). This style of coping, can lead to the development of Unrelenting High Standards and Perfectionism. Besides being exhausting, the cost of this facade is the opportunity to develop deeper relationships that allow us to be our authentic selves.
Studies such as They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives link the use social media with overestimating the happiness of others, particularly for Facebook users who collect a growing audience of 'friends' that they don’t really know. In, Me and My 400 Friends, the authors note that while increasing numbers of ‘friends’ may temporarily boost self esteem these ‘superficial’ connections lead us to play to our audience, projecting our ‘best selves’ whilst robbing us of the opportunity to make real, genuine connections. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) has also been associated with social media by researchers and has been linked to low mood and general life dissatisfaction. Perhaps, limiting our contacts to genuine friendships would help to counter this.
Social comparison is normal for social animals, such as us. However, Psychologists (such as David Burns, grounded in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) describe several unhelpful ways that we tend to bias information, when we are feeling low. These ‘Cognitive Distortions’ may lead us to make such unrealistic social comparisons.
By focusing exclusively on the negative, known as Mental Filtering, we may ruminate over difficulties (such as tricky conversations and situations that didn’t work out) meanwhile Disqualifying the Positives, by minimising the significance of good times or challenges that we have overcome. We might indulge in Black or White thinking by making sweeping judgements such as ‘I am a unlikable’ in the face any slight and Overgeneralise by interpreting a single unpleasant incident as evidence that everything is awful. We may Jump to Conclusions despite limited evidence. In relationships this can manifest itself as 'mind reading' when we assume that we know what others think of us, without even bothering to check it out. Often we Catastrophise, exaggerating the importance of negative life events whilst downplaying the importance of positive ones. Socially, we may exaggerate the positive characteristics and experiences of others whilst understating their difficulties, meanwhile doing the reverse for ourselves. Often we assume responsibility for negative events that are not under our control, known as Personalisation, whilst seldom judging others so harshly. We may live by rigid rules, 'Shoulds' and ‘Musts', that we have learnt (usually during our early years) such as ‘I must always be in control’ and ‘I should never show any weakness’ which are often associated with strong negative emotions and can keep us stuck in self destructive cycles. At times, we may use Emotional Reasoning by assuming our feelings reflect facts, regardless of the evidence. This ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true’ assumption can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, for example we may feel unwanted and hold back which leads us to miss opportunities. We might resort to Labelling by assigning a negative and highly emotive label to ourselves such as ‘loser’ or 'failure', usually on the basis of little evidence.
We all default to these patterns at times, especially when our mood is low. By recognising and challenging distorted thinking styles we can establish a more realistic perspective of ourselves and others, develop deeper emotional connections and improve our mood. Recent research from Berkeley University’s Greater Good Science Centre points to Gratitude as a powerful antidote to negative thinking with studies linking increased gratitude with stronger immunity, lower blood pressure, higher levels of positive emotions (such as, joy, optimism, and happiness), increased levels of generosity and compassion and reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation. Various techniques can be employed to draw our attention to positives such as keeping a gratitude diary, Mindfulness and actively focusing on everything we have to be thankful for. This approach doesn’t advocate an unrealistic, Pollyanna perspective but rather aims to shift the balance from negativity to a more realistic and fulfilling take on life.
The truth is life is messy, there is no secret rule book and to a certain extent we are all winging it. We all have our ups and downs and genuine social support is one of the best protective factors for good mental health. For some, it may be harder to shift these unhelpful thinking styles because they are deep rooted in difficult early experiences, trauma and loss, low self esteem and negative core beliefs. In which case, psychological therapy may help to unravel the underlying processes and build a more confident and authentic sense of yourself and your place in the world.
Burns, D. D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Co., (hardbound); Plume, 1990 (trade paperback) Revised and updated, 1999.
Hui-Tzu, Grace Chou, and Nicholas Edge, B.S. (2012) ’’They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am’’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, vol.15 (2).
Jordan, Alexander, Benoit Monin, Carol Dweck, Benjamin Lovett, Oliver John and James Gross (2011) ”Misery has More Company than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (1), 120-135.
Manago Adriana, Tanara Taylor, and Patricia Greenfield (2012) “Me and My 400 Friends: The Anatomy of College Students’ Facebook Networks, Their Communication Patterns, and Well-Being.” Developmental Psychology, vol. 48 (2) 369-380.
Przybylski, Andrew K., Murayama, Kou., DeHaan, Cody R., Gladwell, Valerie. (2013) Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in human behaviour. vol 29 (4) 1841–1848.
10 Ways to Become More Grateful by Robert Emmons: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/ten_ways_to_become_more_grateful1/