Warning: Friends May Be Less Happy Than They Appear

By Isha Flores | 1/15/11 11:44am

/ The Dartmouth Staff

Check your Face­book and you’re likely to see dozens of pic­tures of smil­ing friends and ac­quain­tances ap­par­ently en­joy­ing them­selves. The truth of their emo­tional lives, how­ever, may be a bit more com­pli­cated than on­line so­cial net­works would have you think.

A new study au­thored by Tuck grad­u­ate stu­dent Alexan­der Jor­dan and pub­lished by Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity finds that peo­ple over­es­ti­mate the hap­pi­ness of their peers and be­lieve them­selves to be lone­lier than their friends. This phe­nom­e­non is ex­ac­er­bated by the in­for­ma­tion peo­ple choose re­veal on so­cial net­work­ing sites like Face­book, the study con­cluded.

“Mis­ery Has More Com­pany Than Peo­ple Think: Un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the Preva­lence of Oth­ers’ Neg­a­tive Emo­tions,” pub­lished in Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Bul­letin in De­cem­ber sur­veyed ap­prox­i­mately 460 first-year stu­dents at Stan­ford. The study found that par­tic­i­pants hid their neg­a­tive emo­tions more than pos­i­tive ones and over­es­ti­mated their peers’ hap­pi­ness.

Par­tic­i­pants in the study kept a diary for 10 weeks and recorded their emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences. Friends of each par­tic­i­pant also de­scribed the par­tic­i­pant’s hap­pi­ness dur­ing the study. Those friends had a “grass is greener on the other side” view, con­sis­tently es­ti­mat­ing the par­tic­i­pants were hap­pier than they re­ally were.

Even peo­ple with many close friends tend to say they are lonely and un­der­es­ti­mate other peo­ple’s un­hap­pi­ness, the study con­cluded.

“Sim­ply being aware of our bi­ases in per­ceiv­ing oth­ers’ emo­tional lives might be help­ful in cor­rect­ing those bi­ases,” Jor­dan said in an email to The Dart­mouth.

Jor­dan be­came in­ter­ested in the sub­ject of hap­pi­ness and on­line net­work­ing when he no­ticed how his friends were neg­a­tively af­fected by what they saw their friends post on­line. This might be be­cause they didn’t re­al­ize how se­lec­tive peo­ple are with the in­for­ma­tion they choose to share, he thought.

“When you browse Face­book, Twit­ter, and so forth, con­sum­ing the con­stant stream of smil­ing pho­tos and an­nounce­ments of ad­ven­ture from friends and fam­ily, re­mem­ber that the por­trait of these lives you're re­ceiv­ing may be as heav­ily edited and fic­tion­al­ized as any tele­vi­sion drama,” Jor­dan said.

Isha Flores