Here’s a difficult question: are you happy?
It’s difficult because it partly depends on who you compare yourself to. Most people compare themselves with those around them. Am I happier than my colleagues, my friends or my family?
We also compare ourselves with real and fictional people we’ve never met. When we do so, there seems to be a fascination with the sadder aspects of other people’s lives. The media continually serve up stories about disasters both global and personal, whether it’s celebrities in rehab or people coping with natural disasters.
The desire to see sad events depicted dramatically has a history as long as humanity itself. Shakespeare was a master of tragedy. What could be sadder than the story of Romeo and Juliet? Here was a couple whose love is thwarted by their families, who both eventually die by their own hands, each believing the other already dead.
It’s not that we take pleasure in seeing other people’s misery, but still we seem drawn to it. This article is about why.
Bottling it Up
At the same time as being interested in other people’s sadness, we are keen to hide our own. Psychologists regularly find that people avoid telling others when they’re sad, down or depressed, but will shout their happiness from the rooftops.
The upshot is that people generally show their positive emotions in public while hiding their negative emotions, no matter how they really feel inside.
We know this is true because various studies have asked participants to report their emotions every hour or so. What they find is that we tend to experience and display more positive emotions in public and more negative emotions in private.
All this is important because the human mind is a relative instrument. We judge our own happiness with reference to our friends, colleagues or family. The problem is that it’s difficult to tell how happy or unhappy other people are if they’re hiding their negative emotions all the time. It gives an imbalanced account. So, could this imbalance be bringing us all down?
Our Hidden Emotions
It was this question that inspired Alexander Jordan and colleagues to find out what we know about how other people feel and how this affects our own happiness (Jordan et al., 2011).
First they asked participants to say how often they themselves experienced various sad emotions. Then people were asked to guess the average for the whole group.
Even when given $50 each to be as accurate as possible, participants still underestimated others’ unhappiness by about 20%. For positive emotions, though, the estimates were remarkably accurate.
But that’s just a whole group of strangers, what about our friends? In a second study Jordan and colleagues had participants log both positive and negative emotions over a few months. These were compared with reports provided by three other people who knew them well.
Once again, though, the same imbalance appeared. The three people underestimated their friend’s negative emotions and over-estimated their positive emotions. In other words they thought their friend was having a much better time than they really were.
If this imbalance in how we perceive other’s emotional lives is accurate, as this research suggest, what implications does this have for how we judge our own happiness?
A third study by Jordan and colleagues suggested some answers. They found that participants who overestimated others’ happiness were themselves more likely to be lonely, dissatisfied and worried about personal problems.
There’s an added irony. When people feel more depressed or sad, they are also more likely to compare themselves to people who appear happy. This leads to a vicious circle of bad feelings.
A Comforting Thought
The strange thing is that we should be able to guess that other people hide their negative emotions; after all, we are hiding them ourselves. And yet this research suggests we don’t.
Instead we seem to take other people’s emotional displays at face value. On average we assume that because other people look happy in public, they must also be happy in private.
One way in which we get a glimpse of other people’s unhappiness is through the media and art. Perhaps we find some comfort in sad movies, depressing art and even the rollercoaster lives of celebrities.
Seeing artistic portrayals of other people experiencing negative emotions reminds us we’re not alone. In fiction, art, film and even reality TV, displays of negative emotion are not just allowed, they are encouraged; which is opposite to real life.
It could be why people use face-to-face support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or online support groups for depression, anxiety and other problems. Seeing other people going through similar difficulties reduces the feeling of being alone in our own misery.
So, other people aren’t necessarily having more fun than us, it’s just they are hiding their worst feelings. On one level we all know this; but when we judge our happiness in comparison to others, we seem to forget.
As French thinker Montesquieu put it almost 350 years ago:
“If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”
Perhaps understanding and accepting this could make us all slightly happier with our lots.
In partnership with the PBS series, This Emotional Life, join us on Tuesday, February 22nd at 4:00 pm EDT (1:00 pm PDT) for a free webinar on the topic of Holding on to Happiness in the Face of Life’s Challenges. Learn and listen in on a discussion about the most effective ways to find happiness.