When we move to a new environment – be it a new job, new school, or new neighborhood – we tend to think that our peers have more friends than we do. But what impact does this belief have on our happiness? Research investigates.

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Being surrounded by friends is important for our well-being, but so is not thinking that others have more friends than we do.

It is known that loneliness and social isolation are not good for one’s health and well-being.

In fact, recent studies have reported that social isolation threatens our immune system and cardiovascular health, being responsible for more premature deaths than obesity.

But could the mere thought that we are alone make us unhappy?

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada – in collaboration with scientists at Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston, MA – set out to investigate the impact of simply believing that one has fewer friends than their peers on one’s overall well-being.

The team was led by Frances Chen, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at UBC, and the researchers conducted two studies to investigate this social belief.

Their findings were published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In the first study, Prof. Chen and colleagues surveyed a group of 1,099 first-year students at UBC, asking them how many close friends they had made and to approximate how many close friends they thought that their peers had made since the beginning of the academic year.

“Close friends” were defined as friends in whom the students felt comfortable confiding their problems, and these were distinguished from “social acquaintances.”

The survey revealed that most of the students believed that their peers had made more friends than they had. In fact, 48 percent of the respondents were convinced that this was true, while 31 percent thought the opposite.

In the second study, the researchers tried to see whether or not this belief would be as prevalent over time, examining its positive and negative implications.

The team followed 389 first-year university students and asked them to complete the surveys at two time points, with 4 to 5 months between them.

The surveys inquired about the participants’ well-being and sense of belonging. The former was assessed using the Satisfaction With Life Scale, as well as the Scale of Positive and Negative Experience, while the latter was examined using the Revised Social Connectedness Scale.

Additionally, the researchers looked at the time that students spent socializing, and the time it took them to form friendships.

“[At] any given time,” the study found, “students who believed that their peers were more socially connected reported lower well-being and belonging.”

But over time, those who thought that their peers were “moderately more socially connected” at the beginning of the year were also more likely to make more friends than those who thought that their peers were much more socially connected.

This is what first study author Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, makes of the findings.

“We think students are motivated to make more friends if they think their peers only have one or two more friends than they do,” she says. “But if they feel like the gap is too big, it’s almost as if they give up and feel it isn’t even worth trying.”

We know the size of your social networks has a significant effect on happiness and well-being […] But our research shows that even mere beliefs you have about your peers’ social networks has an impact on your happiness.”

Prof. Ashley Whillans

Prof. Chen explains what might be driving these social misperceptions, saying, “Since social activities, like eating or studying with others, tend to happen in cafes and libraries where they are easily seen, students might overestimate how much their peers are socializing because they don’t see them eating and studying alone.”

Further studies, the authors think, should investigate other possible mechanisms. For example, it could be that people tend to disproportionately discuss their social activities, but not their solitary ones.

Future research should also examine whether or not the same findings would apply outside of the university – that is, to people changing jobs or moving to another city.

“These feelings and perceptions are probably the strongest when people first enter a new social environment, but most of us probably experience them at some point in our lives,” Prof. Chen concludes.