EMOTIONAL HEALTH
September 22, 2017

You Are Not Alone in Feeling Alone

Every year new students and new hires have to contend with the feeling that everyone knows each other -- except them.

It's not uncommon for first-year students at a college or university to feel lonely. As a freshman, you are in a new environment and know few, if any, other students. As you find their way around a new campus, you see returning students greeting each other, having coffee, and studying and partying together, making it seem like everyone has more friends and is having a better time than you are.

This feeling — that others are more socially connected than you are — can actually be more harmful to one's sense of well-being than loneliness is, according to the results of a recent study.

“We know the size of your social networks has a significant effect on happiness and wellbeing,” Ashley Whillans, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But our research shows that even mere beliefs you have about your peers’ social networks can have an impact on your happiness,”

It's normal to feel that other people may have more friends than you, and these feelings might actually be adaptive.

Whillans, now an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and her team hope their findings may help shape university policy and initiatives to foster a sense of community to support students as they transition to university life.

The University of British Columbia researchers conducted two surveys. In the first survey, they asked 1,099 first-year university students how many friends they had made and to estimate the number of friends they thought their peers had made since the start of school. They found that 48 percent of students felt their peers had made more friends than they had, while 31 percent felt they had made more friends compared to their peers.

The second survey tracked 389 students during their first year at college. The investigators found students who believed their peers had more friends at the beginning of the year had decreased feelings of well being compared to students who felt they had more friends than their peers. However, after several months, the same students who felt their peers had just a few more friends at the beginning of the year reported they had made more friends than students who thought their peers had many more friends in September.

The public nature of social activities may be the reason students think others have more friends than they do. “Activities such as studying or eating with others tend to happen in cafes and libraries where they are easily seen, so students can overestimate how much their peers are socializing, because they never see them studying or eating alone,” said Frances Chen, senior author on the study and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, in a statement.

If you think you are not doing the best in your social environment, you are probably not alone in that feeling, Whillans told TheDoctor. It's normal to feel that other people may have more friends than you, and these feelings might actually be adaptive, she added. So don’t fight the feeling of being lonely or feeling like you don’t belong when you enter into a new social environment. “At least for some of the students in our sample, the feeling that they weren’t doing as well as their peers seemed to motivate them to make more friends.”

The issue of feeling socially connected also affects people in the workplace. Employees are most likely to leave a new job during the first year, and this loss of new employees during the first year is very costly for companies, Whillians explained.

For new employees, the message companies send that their workplace is a positive place to be may actually backfire with new employees, she said. They may feel everyone at the company already knows each other, and they will not be able to integrate into the workplace culture.

The study is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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