December 2020

A Little Envy Can be a Good Thing (in Humans and Machines)

When most of us scroll through social media and inevitably compare ourselves to those around us we feel crappier, like we’re missing out or falling behind in our personal lives or work.  Not coincidentally, there’s also a growing understanding of well-being and happiness as subjective and adaptive: your happiness largely depends on your expectations. Your expectations adapt, however, and not only to your conditions, but to the conditions of those around you.

You probably thought your drawing in 5th grade was just fine until you saw Linda’s. And that’s also why as people get wealthier they aren’t necessarily happier – the comparisons and expectations keep changing – first you want the house, then the yacht, the island, a political office, then maybe a planet (close by). It’s easy to imagine then that for all of us being exposed to so many people’s lives exposes us to all sorts of conditions that appear in some way better than our own, setting our own expectations higher, and increasing the likelihood for unhappiness.

Social Comparison

There’s a lot understood about what actually matters for being happy, both with your life and in your life – social connections, time meaningfully spent, being healthy, appreciating what you have – and I completely agree with all of it. But I want to focus on the role of jealously and envy, which is often derided.

While social media has undoubtedly exacerbated social comparison and envy, their existence has been around for a long time:

“Whoever sang or danced best, whoever was the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent, came to be of most consideration; and this was the first step towards inequality…From these first distinctions arose … envy: and the fermentation caused by these new leavens ended by producing combinations fatal to innocence and happiness.” Rousseau, On the Origin of the Inequality of Mankind

The natural response can be like the Stoics, to limit the exposure and stop comparing yourself to others:

“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself.” – Marcus Aurelius  

But while removing yourself from the barrage of updates and comparisons is essential to focus on improving yourself, that’s likely not enough. One of the methods for well-being is to identify something you want to improve, focus on it relentlessly, and compare yourself to your previous self. Not to other people who have what you want. Even imperceptibly small daily steps compound over time to make a big difference.

But while that gives you a way how to improve, it’s less clear what you should focus on.

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