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The Trouble with Envy

In a charming essay on envy, A.S. Byatt observes that it “works inwardly; concealment is part of its nature.”


Envy is a festering kind of sin. It’s also the Deadly Sin that dare not speak its name.

In the 21st century, the other Big Seven sins are more easily managed, when not downright recycled as virtues.  The “greed is good” 1980s and bubble years celebrated Avarice. Gluttony has become more a dispassionate public health problem than a sin; Sloth is arguably a virtue, not a vice, for the slacker generation that works “smarter, not harder”; Pride has been rehabilitated as the peppy, positive stuff of self-esteem; Wrath is the lingua franca of American politics; Big Pharma has alchemized Lust into a medical imperative, and its absence into a pathology that must be treated with Viagra.

But Envy still lurks and stalks in the dark alleys and bad neighborhoods of our minds. Nothing festers more virulently than unexpressed—unspeakable--envy.

When friends—driven by shame, humiliation, or self-loathing—refuse to acknowledge or confess to their envy, it gets sublimated into largely bogus pretexts and rationalizations for abruptly ending the friendship.

These pretexts attempt to neutralize envy’s bitter, corrosive acid into the alkaline of reason. Usually, they’re unconvincing.  Referring to envy’s literary embodiment, Iago, Samuel Coleridge described envy as “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.”

Sally and Sharon were, truly, like sisters. In their case it was no exaggeration. Sally vacationed with Sharon’s family. They’d been roommates, and in school together. They partied, grew up together, and shared almost everything, from freshman year in high school through to their 30s. Starting in their late 20s, their paths diverged. Sharon got married. Sally always wanted to, and she always wanted to have children, but that didn’t work out, and it was difficult for her even to find men to date. Then, Sharon told Sally that she was going to try to have a baby. At that time, their almost lifelong friendship came to an abrupt, irrevocable, heartbreaking and baffling end. Sally initiated the friendship break up.  

Sally claimed that she was aggrieved to the point of ending a 20-year best friendship because Sharon hadn’t been duly impolite in a brief conversation with someone that Sally had been fighting with for some time.

No one really believed this. Sally’s cover story was disproportionately puny to the depth, intimacy, and longevity of the friendship. One animating reason for the friend break up was clear, if unstated: Envy.

It sounds like an obscure problem but it’s not actually rare. Envy is a silent friend killer. I’ve been informally collecting examples of envy-curdled friendships for years, and, recently, I had occasion to hear more. Women in their 40s described how treasured, lifelong friendships were ended abruptly around major life milestones such as engagement, marriage, professional success, and motherhood. Friends dropped off the face of the earth when a baby came around; friends refused to attend a baby shower or acknowledge motherhood; others didn’t attend weddings on the lamest of pretenses, and then never got in touch; another gossiped viciously behind the envied one’s back.

Of course there are many possible reasons, and each story will sound entirely distinct. Envy is an adroit shape-changer and a master of disguise. It can always be made to look and sound like something else, even to ourselves—something reasonable and morally unimpeachable.

But each story sounds suspiciously familiar, too: The friendship ended with no real reason, the friend who ended it violated basic social courtesies and rituals, and the action was pungent with envy, since in each case, the ditched friend was achieving something that the other friend very much wanted for herself. The most common envy stressors were marriage and pregnancy.

Curiously, it isn’t the bad moments of life that are killing these friendships—those slurry, quasi-therapeutic conversations about break-ups, career failure, and bankruptcy— but the positive, happy moments of accomplishment or transition.

There is a pragmatic treatment for friendship envy. Carolyn Hax, the syndicated advice columnist, recently advised those afflicted with envy to think very honestly and hard about whether they would actually swap for the entire life of the person they envied. You can’t just cherry pick the envious, successful parts of their lives and toss out the rest. You might want Sue’s career success, Jane’s sex life, Ann’s legs, and Beth’s beautiful house, but do you want Sue’s money woes, Jane’s alcoholism, Ann’s wretched husband, and Beth’s career troubles, as well?

Suddenly, the pool of the enviable shrinks to manageable dimensions.

Is there even one person about whom you know a fair amount whose life you would want, if everything had to be included? We tend to envy the particulars, but a life doesn’t happen a la carte (in other pernicious cases the envious one strips her friends’ lives for parts and takes the best and most enviable from each and creates a composite, a sort of Bionic Woman to be envied, built from coveted parts).

The less literal remedy is that we need to fess up to our feelings, even the shaming ones. It may be the great unmentionable emotion, but we all have envy at some point, and some time, toward people we love and care for. There’s nothing wrong with the feeling, per se, only with letting it consume and lure us into to what Byatt aptly calls “pointless plots of destruction.” Let’s out friendship envy. It kills not because it is felt but because it is denied. 

Envy feeds on silence. But breaking the silence, as judged by the wreckage of many a stalwart female friendship, is so very, very hard to do.

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Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
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