Enduring Envy: Jealousy in the 21st Century


"Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at.”

 - Charlie Munger

We’re social creatures. We spend an inordinate amount of time looking at others so that we can understand them. However, cognition is built on comparison, not absolutes. So, in order to understand others, we use ourselves as a comparison point. And, in the shadow of comparison envy rears its ugly head.

Today, with the advent of social networking, we have access to a lot more envy-triggering material than ever before.  We all present our best selves on services like Facebook. On these digital stages, everything is “good”, “amazing” and “fun”. As Steven Furtick, a popular pastor, states: "The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel.” However, life is filled with lulls and letdowns; and, in the glare of social media, we can forget that.

In addition, social media opens us up to the fortunes of those at a periphery of our networks. While we would normally never be aware of Tim, Johnny’s successful friend from middle school, we now collide up against his high flying lifestyle in our morning commute as we scroll through our Facebook feed. Almost all of us have heard of a friend of a friend who just made hundreds of millions of dollars in a business deal, or received a rare and honorable Rhodes Scholarship. However, these types of triumphs were intangible to us in the past; they were abstract tales, existing in the vapors of our imagination. And, as many psychological studies have shown, abstractions are quite poor at arousing our emotions - concrete images on the other hand, are power affective amplifiers. Today, with our social feeds, we are put face to face with undeniable visual proof of these realities that used to be comfortably intangible.

So, why is this a problem? It’s a problem because of how interconnected we have become. All of us, at all times, are three degrees away from people that are currently experiencing great fortune. This is a good thing. Who doesn’t want to be surrounded by prosperous and pleased individuals? However, unfortunately, all of us seem to contain a predilection for resentment. And, so while part of us revels in the reflected glory of our peers, another part of us asks: “Why not me?”. While some people are masters of gratitude and appreciation, envy seems to be the more common phenomenon.

This is not to say that our social technologies are negative forces in our lives. They do us much good, and allow us to build relationships with life changing individuals that we would never have connected with otherwise. But, in order to further refine our products, we need to understand the emotional landscape of our digital homes. Perhaps, with a few select product decisions, we can build a world with a bit more appreciation and a bit less jealousy. While that may seem manipulative, especially in the wake of the Facebook experiment kerfluffle, the fact of the matter is that every product constrains and shapes the behavior of its users. While many of these decisions are done without much thought or haste, we can, with a bit of experimentation and empathy, paint a picture of the world with a bit less green; and watch brighter, more enjoyable, scenes emerge from the palette.

Image: Angelo Bronzino - Venus, Cupid and Envy

Big Think
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