We sometimes have trouble figuring out how to compare our own experiences with those of other people. That much is obvious from the study I wrote about earlier this week in which people tended to underestimate how similar their emotional reactions would be to those of others.

After all, thinking about ourselves in a purely objective way isn’t just a goal that’s impossible. It may be one that’s not even desirable!

Researchers have long known that people tend to “self-enhance” by overestimating how high they score on positive traits like intelligence and attractiveness. To put it another way, everyone thinks they’re smarter than average.

But a new study published in Emotion has found that people tend to think they’re happier than average too.

In the study, researchers had people participate in a gambling task, reporting their emotional responses and guessing what they thought other people’s emotional responses would be to winning and losing. Overall, people tended to report their own emotions as more positive than the expected emotions of others.

In particular, people tended to think that other people would experience greater negative emotions in response to losing. On average, they rated themselves as less likely to be emotionally affected by the gambling losses.

The researchers found that the effect depended on social distance. That is, people tended to estimate their own emotions as being more different (and more positive) than the emotions of people who were less socially similar to themselves. People even tended to enhance their own emotions relative to the emotions of their future selves – they estimated their future selves as experiencing more negative emotions in response to the gambling game.

The findings suggest that besides overestimating desirable traits in themselves, people tend to self-enhance their emotions too. At least in some contexts, it appears that people tend to overestimate how positive their emotions are relative to the emotions of others, leading most people to think of themselves as happier than average.

Image: Flickr/Victor Björkund