Spending time alone can be delightful. Padding around an empty house in your pyjamas, spending hours in the bath, watching Netflix in bed or eating unlikely food combinations that would make your flatmates gag: these can all be all useful and necessary strategies for feeling calmer, happier and re-energised.
Sometimes, however, alone time can be lonely. But if you often feel like all your friends are out having fun and socialising while you’re stuck at home solo, here’s a paradoxical fact: you’re far from alone.
According to two studies published recently in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the conviction that our friends are more popular than us – and that we’re missing out on social events as a result of our own lack of popularity – is incredibly common.
One of the studies surveyed the beliefs and attitudes about friendship and popularity among first year college students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. It revealed almost half (48%) of students believed their friends had more friends than they did. Less than a third (31%) felt they were more popular than their friends.
A second, smaller study showed – unsurprisingly – that feelings of being left out tended to make students feel unhappy.
In other words, most of the study participants believed they were the most unpopular person in their group of friends, and this made them sad. But of course, we can’t all be at the bottom of the social totem pole – indicating that these beliefs, while widespread and powerful, are often misplaced.
Frances Chen, an assistant psychology professor at Harvard Business School and the senior author on the study, said that students may believe their peers are more popular than them for one simple reason: they only ever see their friends in social situations.
“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 socialising because they don’t see them eating and studying alone,” she told NPR.
While these studies only looked at university students, it’s not hard to see how these beliefs could continue long after graduation. We all have that one friend who seems to constantly be flitting from fabulous party to fabulous party, making us feel like an antisocial slob in comparison – but we rarely stop to consider the fact that she might worry about being left out, too.
Although the studies did not specifically examine how social media influenced people’s feelings of popularity and/or exclusion, the authors said that it would almost certainly have an impact. A significant body of research has already shown that Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms can create a warped impression of other people’s lives, and make individuals feel inadequate in comparison (the dreaded FOMO)
Social media “perpetuates the idea that other people are more social than you,” said Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. People generally only post their ‘highlight reel’ on social media, she said, and this can damage our confidence.
However, she added that if you would genuinely like to increase your social circle, you can. Past research suggests that if you tell yourself that making friends is “something you can change, something you can get better at”, then you will work towards that goal, said Whillans.
To sum up: if you feel like you’re the only one not having fun, you’re not. But if you’d like to make more friends, you can.
And if you’re perfectly happy pottering around your flat in a dressing gown while everyone else is out on the town? Hey – that’s OK too.
Images: Brooke Cagle / Rex Features