Are We Better Judges of When Others Are Happy Than When They Are Sad?

T his statement is generally true. Consider the following scenario: Assume you work with three other people: Jane, Blake, and Morgan. Jane received several calls from customers unhappy with a product made by her company. Blake broke up with his fiancé. Morgan has had a recurrence of depression. Yet at lunch today all three seemed pretty happy. There were smiles, laughter, and in general good humor for all to see. Yet each person, in his or her own way, is weathering tough times. If you had to gauge the moods of Jane, Blake, and Morgan, you might say they were in relatively good moods. If you asked each of them, however, they might attribute their seeming good humor to impression management, “putting on a good face,” or the effects of the social environment.

This hypothetical scenario reflects a phenomenon recent research supports: we typically underestimate the negative emotions experienced by others. In other words, people often feel worse than we believe they do. To some extent, the same is true of positive emotions: We estimate people to experience more positive emotions than they do. Why do we think people are in better moods than they really are, and what are the implications?

There are two reasons we see others as experiencing more positive and fewer negative emotions than they do:

1. People generally experience more negative emotions when they are by themselves than when they are in the company of others. So we tend to see others not at their lowest, but at their highest.

2. Most people are reluctant to divulge negative feelings in social situations. Thus, when we’re feeling low, we tend to avoid showing others how bad we feel.

The upshot?

First, we should appreciate that in social situations like work, people probably feel less happy than they appear. Second, we should be less afraid to disclose negative emotions to friends, close coworkers, and significant others, given the costs of “keeping it all in.” Often the strongest emotional links we form with others occur when someone reports experiencing something negative that we too have experienced.


Sources: Based on: A. H. Jordan, B. Monin, C. S. Dweck, B. J. Lovett, O. P. John, and J. J. Gross, “Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37, no. 1 (2011), pp. 120–135; M. Szalavitz, “Misery Has More Company Than You Think, Especially on Facebook,” Time (January 27, 2011), http:// ; and C. Jarrett, “Other People May Experience More Misery Than You Realize,” Research Digest (January 24, 2011), http://bps-research-digest.blogspot .com .

Photo by Carmela Nava