If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.
Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.
And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.
The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.
Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.
Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”
Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.
Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.
Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.
There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.
I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”
Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.
This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.
All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.
The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.
What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:
When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…
Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.
The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.
Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.
Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.
The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.
When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.
Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.
Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.
I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.
The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.