Volume 14, Number 7
How rich is your social life? Do you have as many friends as most other people do? Do you tend to participate in as many social activities as others do? Homo sapiens is a social species, so that the existence of cooperative and supportive relationships is not just something that adds to the quality of life, but rather is essential for survival. Human infants are dependent upon others for longer periods than are offspring in most other species. Social connection and engagement is important for one’s health, and has specifically been associated with decreased susceptibility to cancer and cardiovascular disease. People who have vibrant social relationships tend to live longer. Notably, an individual’s own appraisal about the quantity and quality of connections to other people itself affects health. The perspective that one’s social life is lacking, or that one is more isolated than others are, is harmful to health. The perception of social isolation is a chronic stressor.
There is extensive research over many decades indicating that people’s assessments of themselves tend to be biased in the positive direction. On dimensions such as friendliness and trustworthiness, people tend to rate themselves as better than average. Conversely, most people believe themselves to be less biased than others. There is some evidence that these “self-serving” biases are important for mental health, as persons who are depressed are less likely to exhibit these biases.
Does the tendency to see oneself as “above average” apply to perceptions of one’s social life? Investigators from Cornell University and the New School for Social Research published a paper last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which they reported the results of eleven studies. Across these studies, they found that people tend to think that other people have more active social lives. Their paper was titled, “Home Alone: Why people believe other’s social lives are richer than their own.” So if you are like most people, you believe that your social life is not as vibrant as are the social lives of your peers. What this means is that most people live with a subjective conclusion that is less healthy for them than the alternative perception would be.
Believing that others have more active social lives actually isn’t surprising. How many social media posts picture individuals staying home and reading books, versus photos of parties or other social engagements? Most of us would agree that we are more likely to talk with others about our social events and activities, than we are to discuss what we do when we are alone. And, simply by definition, we are likely to have a greater number of interactions with persons who are more social rather than less social. The “availability heuristic” is a ubiquitous cognitive tendency to assume that instances/examples that easily come to mind are more frequent. Therefore, since it is easier to bring to mind interactions with socially active versus isolated individuals, or social media posts of social activity versus aloneness, by comparison it becomes easy to conclude that one’s social life is less active than the lives of others tend to be.
Just as it cannot be mathematically true that every person is more friendly than average, it cannot be true that every person’s social life is less active than average. Unfortunately, most people live with this inaccurate illusion about their social lives. Challenging this misperception has potential to be health enhancing, and accurate. The likelihood is that your social life is closer to average than you think, and might even be above average. And if you think that this is the case, it is good for your health.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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