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Let's talk about envy
That dirty topic which everyone likes to ignore!
I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with a few friends I made through Instagram, and among the many topics we discussed, we explored the concept of envy in relation to watches and Instagram. It is a pretty gnarly topic, which, understandably, doesn't get discussed too often. I thought it would be interesting to explore. I'd like to thank @running_sands, @horology_ancienne and @watchguy315 for their opinions and thoughts on the matter.
Your friend manages to buy that incredibly difficult-to-get grail watch, and you congratulate them while seething inside.
Your colleague gets the promotion which you both applied for. You congratulate them while seething inside.
Your friend goes on an incredible holiday, and shares photos on Instagram. You usually “like” their posts, but this time you willfully don’t do so.
A fellow entrepreneur and competitor enjoys a series of fortunate events in their business. The only thing you have on your mind is all the things you can't stand about this person, and how everything they do is rather stupid.
Unless you're some sort of saint, it is likely that you have experienced something akin to these anecdotes at some point in your life. That is, you observe someone getting their grubby paws on something you do not have, and you feel angry and resentful.
Aristotle defined envy as pain at the sight of another's good fortune, stirred by “those who have what we ought to have”.
I’m envious of his sick beard, tbh! Apart from Aristotle's definition, envy isn’t just pain due to the good fortune of others; there is also pleasure in the misfortune of others, and I have no doubt most of you have heard the Germans word for that version of envy: schadenfreude.
In short: envy is pain we experience due to the good fortune of others or pleasure we experience due to the misfortune of others. Easy!
Worth noting here, that envy and jealousy are similar emotions, but for philosophers and psychologists, there is a difference. Envy is pain at the good fortune of others; you feel bad because other people have something you do not. Jealousy, however, is feeling pain that someone might take away something you have; Most commonly seen in romantic relationships.
Nobody likes to talk about it
The truth is, most people are never comfortable revealing that they are envious of someone else. You will of course hear about how one person might admire another for their success or good fortune, but I have never heard anyone (except, perhaps, children!) say, “I’m angry at that person because they have something that I do not have!” That seems logical, since it makes a person come across as petty and it would likely lower their already shrinking social status (there’s also a second part).
Although it is logical that regular folks don't like to talk about envy, it is surprising how little academics talk about it! There aren't many books about the psychology of envy, and the most rigorous book I found was published in 1991, over 30 years ago, and that was actually more focused on jealousy rather than envy itself.
Philosophers and sociologists have written a bit more about envy, but even these are old publications. Helmut Schoeck published Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour in the 1960s. Alexis de Tocqueville (a sociologist/political scientist) wrote about envy in Democracy in America, but that was published nearly 200 years ago.
In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle dug into the emotion of envy, and his definition of envy (over 2000 years ago) is the same definition that philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists still use today... when they actually talk about it.
So even though we may not like to talk about envy, understanding it can help us navigate social conflicts. In fact, one might argue that a large proportion of the negative feelings we experience towards others, particularly in this little niche of ours (watch collectors on Instagram), have an unhealthy dose of envy underlying them. As I’ve explored this concept of envy, I’ve become more aware of it in my own life and in realising it, have been able to take steps to course-correct from within.
What sort of people do we envy?
You will have observed that you envy some people, and not others - even though some of the people you do not envy, seem like they ought to be envied! How strange that might seem… BUT: According to Aristotle, we tend to envy people we consider ‘our equals’, or folks in (what we perceive) are our own peer group.
We don't really envy people who lived centuries ago, or people who we believe to be far above or below ourselves (in whatever context you want to evaluate). If you think about your own life, you will see this is pretty accurate.
For example, people are unlikely to envy Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, even though they have a lot more than everyone else. On the other hand, if you’re, say, an accountant, and your friend from University who decided to pursue his own business ends up selling it for £50m, you will possibly feel envious; even though you’re in different lines of work, they now enjoy a level of success that you don’t. You basically see yourself in the ‘same group’ of sorts, rightly or wrongly, and this is completely stupid, but it is how we think! For all you know, this guy could have inherited a £500m from his grandfather, and you would be none the wiser; yet there you are, feeling envious as if you started from the same spot!
According to Aristotle, the reason why we feel envy only towards our direct or perceived 'equals', is that these people are more likely to trigger the thought, “That could have been me!” You look at the person with the good thing and think, “I’m like that person. If they have that good thing, I should have it too!” But, you don’t have it, so it hurts.
The key thing to take away here, is that this is probably going to get worse over time, as Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard argued that the amount of envy in society will increase as society becomes more egalitarian. We all know it isn't, but as the messaging and posturing grows, so does the belief of the 'lower end' the they're more equal than reality would suggest (since they see more people as 'their peers').
What's so bad about envy anyway?
Thomas Aquinas took up Aristotle’s definition of envy and explored what exactly made it a vice in Summa Theologica. For Aquinas, envy is a vice because you negative feelings in response to goodness, or you take pleasure in misfortune. No 'good' person would feel this way, i.e. feeling joy from evil, as it were.
Envy also causes us to take steps to reduce the amount of good in the world, because you're left wanting to have others' good fortune taken away (net result, everyone loses, which is 'evil'). In other words, “If I cannot have it, they should not have it either!” Grim!
It's a weird one, because unlike other vices, people don't even derive much pleasure from envy. You just tend to feel bad, and even when it comes to schadenfreude (pleasure at the misfortune of others), it is still bitter, because you eventually feel bad that you felt pleasure from the misfortune of others!
Envy leads to resentment and resssentiment
Now if you experience pain at the good fortune of another person, you tend to blame the envied person for causing you this pain, and that creates a form of resentment, which is the underlying sense of being mistreated or wronged by another person. Often, resentment is a result of one's own perception that we have been treated unfairly.
The problem with resentment born from envy, is that the 'offender' doesn't even know they have done something to 'wrong' you! The thing is, we don't even express this resentment, it just eats away at us from the inside. When resentment manifests itself in the real world, this is usually through passive aggressive behaviour. We might ignore people, or gossip about them behind their backs, and so on.
What happens at this point is we observe a gap between where the envious person sees themselves, and where the person being envied happens to be; or between what someone else has, and what the envious person does not have. To close the gap, the envious person can strive upwards to attain or achieve this thing they lack, or they can try and pull the envied person down to their level (lose, lose).
On the latter, this is typically done by denigrating someone's success, or devaluing their accomplishments. “Yeah, he got that watch, but he had to degrade himself in the face of the brands to do it!” or … “Yeah, he has lots of nice watches, but they're mostly hype pieces and he isn't a real collector!” - and all these other narratives you might have heard over the years. When this denigration happens on a massive scale, it represents what philosophers call ressentiment.
Soren Kierkegaard was the first to explore the concept of ressentiment philosophically. In his book Two Ages, he describes the way that the passionless masses of men, who are stuck in the realm of thought and abstraction and too afraid to ever make a bold decision, envy the world’s few passionate risk-takers and their ability to take real action. This envy, leads to ressentiment, which fuels a desire to 'trim the tall poppies'.
He called this dynamic, (“If all can’t be great and noble, then no one can!”) levelling. Levelling operates through the media which “cancels” those who dare to think differently ('cancel culture'), and through the wave of public opinion, deters people from attempting anything new or revolutionary in the first place.
A few decades after Kierkegaard, Nietzsche explored ressentiment and argued that envy-induced ressentiment, in addition to bringing the noble and great ones down to their level, compels the envious ones to assert that what might seem to make themselves inferior, is actually what makes themselves superior!
Nietzsche described this as an inversion of values i.e. what was once considered bad becomes good; vulnerability becomes courage; meekness and poverty become blessings. Nietzsche argued that the ethical codes of Judaism and Christianity actually grew out of the weak’s envy-fueled ressentiment for the strong. To deal with the pain of inferiority, the weak recast their disadvantages as superiority-conveying strengths.
Nietzsche called these inverted ethical codes “slave morality,” and described them as intellectually dishonest. Recalibrating the hierarchy of values in this 'upside-down' manner made the weak feel better about themselves, but they remained enslaved by their deficiencies, and continued to lack the power and strength they really desired.
How to fight envy-induced resentment / ressentiment
The main problem with envy-induced resentment/ressentiment, is that it’s always easier to see it happening with others, than it is to spot it in ourselves. Do we resent someone because they’ve committed a genuine injustice to us, or is it because we simply want what they have? Are people criticising us because they’re filled with ressentiment, or because our ideas and behaviors are, in fact, negative or simply stupid? It is rather easy to dismiss “haters” as being jealous, as opposed to examining what WE are doing, critically and objectively.
So while the concept of ressentiment is useful in understanding the motivations for how others treat us, we must strive to evaluate ourselves equally critically. To what extent are our own feelings and actions driven by envy-fueled resentment? This is an outrageously difficult thing to do!
Our egos will always be included to justify our own beliefs. We will always struggle to objectively assess whether we resent someone else’s success because it truly is unfair, unearned, based on dishonesty, hype, or mediocre work; OR, because we simply feel like we deserve the same status, rewards, or accolades, and feel frustrated that they aren’t coming our way.
Assuming our own motivations can't be perfectly and objectively evaluated, I think it might be helpful to always assume that there is some envy behind it. Why? Firstly, even when some resentment does appear to be objectively justified, there almost always exists an element of envy anyway. Secondly, and more fundamentally, is because this is the way anyone should respond to the personal potential for envy, regardless of the actual degree of envy’s influence on the mind.
Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard believed that ressentiment was rooted in evasion — the search for a someone to blame for our own mediocrity and misery. The fix, was to simply take full responsibility for your own life!
If a person with ressentiment says, “I’m miserable, and it’s everyone else’s fault!” then the corollary archetype asks, “What can I do to improve my lot in life?”
A person with resentment is passive and reactive, the person who owns his life is dynamic and active. Nietzsche argued that the more active you become - the more you concentrate on playing, dancing, creating - the less you even notice what other people are doing.
The takeaway is simple: It is healthy to believe that there is some envy-induced resentment underlying nearly all of our criticisms and contempt. That knowledge will inevitably nudge us towards a higher range of action, and as a result, improve our own outcomes (regardless of what happens with others).
The notion of drawing parallels with watch collecting seems unnecessary at this point; This probably applies to everyone in various ways, and the nuances of every individual's circumstances make this a unique journey for us all. Hope you found it useful in some way.
Live and let live - never forget that you really have NO CLUE what another person is going through, and what circumstances led them to have the life which you observe a mere fraction of. Focus on what you DO have, and not what others have in addition to you. Focus on where you started, and how far ahead you are, of where you thought you would be a decade ago. This sounds like self-help mumbo-jumbo, but if you stop and think for a moment, it is also just… simple logic!