science of us

Everyone Is Worried That Everyone Else’s Social Lives Are More Exciting

Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

Recently, I was talking to some friends (of which I have several) about Instagram Stories. One had said she thought their purpose was to make people left out, and the other agreed — the type of story she saw most often in her feed was something I’ll call the Social-Gathering Sweep: a pan of one’s lively, blurry party surroundings, done too quickly to make out any one detail, but slow enough that you can see that there are other people out there having fun while you’re at home. Alone. Watching Instagram Stories.

I knew what my friends were referring to immediately, not only because I have seen these videos — I have also made them. I have been at parties with nothing particularly notable to see and still thought, “I should document this,” the subtext being “so people know I have a life.” I don’t enjoy watching these brief and badly composed party videos, and I can’t imagine anyone else does, either. Their only purpose is to reassure ourselves, and the people who follow us, that we have places to go and people to see.

As it happens, this is probably something many of us feel insecure about. A new study led by Cornell University researcher Sebastian Deri claims that most people believe that other people have richer and more active social lives than they themselves do. This finding contrasts with the general principle by which people are quick to self-flattery: Studies show we typically rate ourselves as smarter, happier, healthier, more moral, and safer drivers than our counterparts. And yet when it comes to our social lives, we’re more likely to believe the grass is having way more fun on the other side.

Deri and his colleagues hypothesized that part of the reason people rate their social lives so negatively is because we measure ourselves not against a representative sample, but against those examples most easily called to mind. (Imagine the most glamorous Instagram Social-Gathering Sweep you’ve ever seen, then wonder why it only took you five seconds to recall it.) Furthermore, the researchers suggest that hanging out in groups forces most individuals to more closely examine (and imagine) the interior lives of other people than you would typically do alone. And generally speaking, we assume those other people are all having a blast.

As expected, the researchers found that subjects rated their social lives as inferior to those of their friends, family, and acquaintances, and they’re not happy about it, either — a significant portion of the respondents said they wished their social lives were as healthy and active as their peers’. Then again, if almost everybody thinks almost everybody else has a better social life than they do, somebody has to be wrong.

Everyone Thinks Everyone Else’s Social Lives Are More Fun