The song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” well, not for everyone. While images of love and joy fill storefronts, social media feeds, TV screens and magazine pages, for many people, the reality of the holidays isn’t so cheerful. Between family dysfunction, loss, changes in eating and drinking habits, and increasingly cold and dark winter days, it’s easy for the holiday season to feel not-so-merry and bright. The constant reminders of individuals’ happiness can additionally serve as a painful reminder of the joy and love that’s lacking in our lives. For this reason, the month of December can be a particularly difficult time of year for those dealing with family conflict, illness or death, break ups, divorce, loneliness, or mental health issues.
I was listening to a Hidden Brain episode titled, “Feeding The Green-Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly” and heard a story about two friends. In 2014, the ladies traveled to remote Caracoles Island in the Indian Ocean to teach English. The experience was meant to be a fabulous adventure but something tragic happened. Both became sick with Dengue Fever. One of the ladies, Jess, was single and the other one was married to a doctor who became extremely concerned about his wife and was able to have her evacuated to Nairobi in Kenya where the hospitals had air conditioning, good food, and excellent medical care. Jess, meanwhile, was stuck on the island. The average temperature was 100°, no electricity, and horrible food.Jess couldn’t stop thinking about how her friend was getting so much better treatment than her but now Jess was suffering from a new problem. She was extremely envious of her friend to the point where Jess felt physical pain inside her body besides having Dengue Fever.
Indeed that is the purpose of envy. It is a tool for social comparison. It cues us to our relative position among friends, colleagues, and peers. Jess, clearly, was in a weaker position and envy rang the alarm. Jess and her friend eventually healed but it took several conversations about the pain of being abandoned for her friend and Jess to continue building a friendship. Not all stories of envy end with growth and understanding, very often, it leads us to wicked places and tragic consequences. This is an emotion most prefer to hide or is very rarely talked about in real life. Envy is an emotion that prompts us to resentment, rage, and even revenge.
It is hard to imagine life without the pleasure of happiness and deep sadness. These emotions make us whole by giving us a way to experience life with all its beauty and suffering. An emotion like envy feels different, it’s foul, and awful. To understand envy, I will start the conversation with the infamous Homer Simpson from the television show “The Simpsons.”
Homer is an excellent example of the seven deadly sins. He is lazy, gluttonous, greedy, and overly consumed by his neighbor Ned Flanders. Homer can’t stand Ned! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxh5Mr_UzwQ Why Flanders is a pillar of the community, he has a nicer house, a fancier grill, and a better job. One day Flanders does something unusual. He announces he is quitting his job and opening up a store for left-handed people. Homer feels he has the upper hand on Ned. The store is truly a stupid idea. Homer dreams that it will lead Ned’s downfall. Later in the episode, Homer was speaking with his daughter Lisa about how he was so excited to see Ned fall flat on his butt. Lisa replied, “you are experiencing a thing called schadenfreude.” Schadenfreude is pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. What makes Homer such an interesting character is that he openly and happily admits what many people are thinking but are too shy to say including envy and schadenfreude (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B01e7n4RzZc). Envy taps into a dark side of human behavior but that does not mean it is without value. It has its purpose.
The anthropologist Christopher Bloom has studied extensively the subject of envy to show that it serves a dual purpose. One of the two points Christopher makes about envy is that inequality is everywhere (e.g., intelligence, looks, or physical ability etc) and the other point is that they matter and that they are not lost in a group of people. Even primates pay attention to social ranking on who has less and who has more. Every primate intimately knew where he or she stood in the social order of the tribe. The reality of inequalities and the fact that our brains are hardwired in our brains to notice them gives fuel for envy. In other words, we make sense of our world and how we rank through social comparison (https://dornsife.usc.edu/cf/faculty-and-staff/faculty.cfm?pid=1003114).
Mina Cikara, a social psychologist from Harvard, says we make sense of our world through social comparisons. For example, when we meet a new person and we immediately register a lot of things (e.g., ability, height, features etc.) but rather how we compare to him or her. We do this consciously or nonconsciously because it tells us how we fit into the human hierarchy. For example, if we are working out and need help lifting weights. We see a muscular versus a weaker person we are more likely to ask for assistance from the muscular individual. Once more, brings forth our awareness of what might need our attention (https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/mina-cikara). I know many are wondering is envy always negative.
Look at it this way, we see our family members living a fulfilling life and we envy him or her but we do not wish anything bad to happen; this is benign envy. In other words, if my brother has more than I have and I might be inspired to work harder to achieve those goals and these benign forms of envy may manifest in forms of admiration. In a similar fashion, your sister sends pictures of her kids and it elicits more hurtful emotions than positive ones. As envy can be a helpful tool more often it never works in a beneficial way.
Actually there are many more sources that suggest (e.g., Facebook) that actually makes us unhappy. Research performed by O’hare Barzilay shows that people who used Facebook on a daily basis found a more comparative and judgmental on others and oneself. For example, when we see our friends vacationing in an exotic place we think about our cold and lonely lives in Wisconsin or how people have kids who accomplish things and we wonder when am I going to have kids. Being engaged in constant social comparison decreases our happiness. It is not that we believe that that person is happier than ourselves but we need to consistently prove ourselves over and over again in this social comparison. When we social compare our lives we often see things we don’t do or have and it produces a feeling stronger than envy, it may produce anger, resentment, or even hatred.
The forms of hostile envy is thought of as a way to bring you down to my level instead of rising up. For example pay cuts, research done in the University of Zürich and Nottingham found that teams of two had their pay cut. One trial had both members pay was cut and the result was sadness. When only one person’s pay was cut and the other remained the researchers found forms of sadness and instantaneous envy. We all can understand and empathize with this form of envy but it is harder for some to confront is malicious envy.
What is interesting and sad, we reserve this kind of envy for our neighbors, classmates, friends, and our peers. People pick relevant comparisons standards on relevant dimensions. For example, I’m not going to compare my wages to Warren Buffett’s. I’m going to compare them to other people in my social network. Ironically the most virulent forms of envy are for individuals in the same boat as us. Once malicious envy or hostile envy is aroused within us, it serves an easy lead into schadenfreude or in other words when our targets of our envy stumble and fall, we cheer. Hostile envy may naw at you but schadenfreude feels pleasurable. It soothes the pain of envy. Looking at it this way, my peers were envious of my charisma and ability to make people gravitate towards me before my accident. They wanted to be me, in other words, they wanted some of Chad’s special drink. If you are like many, in this despicable place of Marinette, wanted me to fail but didn’t want me to lose my life, you felt sadness when you heard of my injury but some pleasure at hearing the popular athlete lost his social and physical prowess.
People felt good because some karmic restoration has taken place. The hierarchy often produces schadenfreude, in other words, people felt pleasure when I got too big for my britches and got taken down a peg. We see this every day in pop culture and these are not just the successful but the too handsome, too wealthy, or too positive. We’ve all heard of the story about Martha Stewart. She was accused of insider trading. After hearing the verdict it was open season for schadenfreude. Why did people take such pleasure and downfall of her? She was American success story. Someone who turned her passion for beautiful things into a business empire. Why didn’t we celebrate her success story?
I do not, now, want you to think that I am a complete ass but rather a person with what little pride I have left in my life. When others are doing fabulously better than we are in life; our instincts are to pull him or her down and when the person falls we cheer in our heads and it feels good. Most people know it is wise to hide these negative emotions. I think we all have learned that it is not good to express envy or schadenfreude. When we fantasize about winning the lottery and hoarding all the cash or saying “fuck you” to that annoying employee we want to hide those emotions. Gluttony, greed, wrath are all feelings we don’t want to show to people. Envy and schadenfreude may be buried in the deepest in ourselves. I suspect there might be an overt reason we don’t demonstrate these emotions is because it expresses our inferiority and who wants to do that?
Much more research is needed on envy in schadenfreude. For example if a white person watches a white nationalist assault someone is that person more likely to become one themselves? If we feel pleasure seeing someone on the top of the social ladder fall are we more likely to cause pain ourselves? If we can be led down a path of schadenfreude where does the pain end? Just maybe the first step of combating these emotions is to admit we have them.