Thursday, December 20, 2012
Your Misery Has Company
The holidays can be really, really hard. We struggle to find the right gifts, and to find the money in our budgets to pay for them. All the preparation – decorating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning - takes time and effort, and it’s not as if you can put the rest of your life on hold to get it all done.
And then there are the guests. Playing host to family and friends may be the most difficult part of all, particularly when there is so much pressure to make the experience a joyous one. (And if you are the guest rather than the host, holiday travel is no picnic, either.)
It’s not at all unusual for people to feel more anxious, exhausted, frustrated, or depressed at this time of year than they typically do. As if that’s not bad enough, many of us routinely add insult to injury by feeling guilty or ashamed that we aren’t bursting with happiness like we “should” be. After all, isn’t this the season to be jolly?
And what’s more, we feel like we are alone in our unhappiness – as if everyone else is making merry while we are making misery. This common misperception only adds to our pain.
So why don’t we notice that other people are struggling as we are? New research suggests that the answer is fairly straightforward: People are, generally speaking, more private when it comes to their negative emotions.
As a society, we are taught (often implicitly) to be embarrassed by feelings like sadness and anxiety, which suggest vulnerability. Consequently, we are more likely to try to keep them hidden – the net result being that others assume us to be happier than we really are, even when they know us well.
In addition, the researchers found that people routinely underestimate how often their peers are faced with the negative experiences they themselves endure. In one study, undergraduates underestimated how frequently their fellow students were rejected by a romantic interest, received a low grade, or felt homesick for distant friends and families by 10-30%.
They also overestimated the frequency of others’ enjoyable experiences, like going out with friends or attending parties, by 10-20%! So not only do we think other people are happier than we are, but we assume their lives are better, too.
Our ignorance has serious consequences. Research shows that the more you underestimate the emotional pain of others, the more isolated and lonely you feel. You are also more likely to brood and ruminate on your bad experiences, and feel less satisfied with your life. When our perceptions of other people’s lives are distorted, we may feel sorrier for ourselves than we really should, and ashamed of our anxiety and sadness when we really needn’t be.
They say that misery loves company, and there’s good reason for it. There is comfort, and wisdom, in knowing that other people share our difficulties and understand our experiences. If you can’t take all the headache and stress out of your holidays (and I’ve yet to meet the person who could), then you can at least do yourself a favor this year, and embrace the very real truth that you are not alone.