The Age of Envy: How to be Happy When Everyone Else’s Life Looks Perfect
Social media has created a world in which everyone seems ecstatic – apart from us. Is there any way for people to curb their resentment?
The Guardian|Moya Sarner, October 2018
One night about five years ago, just before bed, I saw a tweet from a friend announcing how delighted he was to have been shortlisted for a journalism award. I felt my stomach lurch and my head spin, my teeth clench and my chest tighten. I did not sleep until the morning.
Another five years or so before that, when I was at university, I was scrolling through the Facebook photos of someone on my course whom I vaguely knew. As I clicked on the pictures of her out clubbing with friends, drunkenly laughing, I felt my mood sink so fast I had to sit back in my chair. I seemed to stop breathing.
I have thought about why these memories still haunt me from time to time – why they have not been forgotten along with most other day-to-day interactions I have had on social media – and I think it is because, in my 32 years, those are the most powerful and painful moments of envy I have experienced. I had not even entered that journalism competition, and I have never once been clubbing and enjoyed it, but as I read that tweet and as I scrolled through those photographs, I so desperately wanted what those people had that it left me as winded as if I had been punched in the stomach.
We live in the age of envy. Career envy, kitchen envy, children envy, food envy, upper arm envy, holiday envy. You name it, there’s an envy for it. Human beings have always felt what Aristotle defined in the fourth century BC as pain at the sight of another’s good fortune, stirred by “those who have what we ought to have” – though it would be another thousand years before it would make it on to Pope Gregory’s list of the seven deadly sins.
But with the advent of social media, says Ethan Kross, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies the impact of Facebook on our wellbeing, “envy is being taken to an extreme”. We are constantly bombarded by “Photoshopped lives”, he says, “and that exerts a toll on us the likes of which we have never experienced in the history of our species. And it is not particularly pleasant.”
Clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew says she is seeing more and more envy in her consulting room, from people who “can’t achieve the lifestyle they want but which they see others have”. Our use of platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, she says, amplifies this deeply disturbing psychological discord. “I think what social media has done is make everyone accessible for comparison,” she explains. “In the past, people might have just envied their neighbours, but now we can compare ourselves with everyone across the world.” Windy Dryden, one of the UK’s leading practitioners of cognitive behavioural therapy, calls this “comparisonitis”.
And those comparisons are now much less realistic, Andrew continues: “We all know that images can be filtered, that people are presenting the very best take on their lives.” We carry our envy amplification device around in our pockets, we sleep with it next to our pillows, and it tempts us 24 hours a day, the moment we wake up, even if it is the middle of the night. Andrew has observed among her patients that knowing they are looking at an edited version of reality, the awareness that #nofilter is a deceitful hashtag, is no defence against the emotional force of envy. “What I notice is that most of us can intellectualise what we see on social media platforms – we know that these images and narratives that are presented aren’t real, we can talk about it and rationalise it – but on an emotional level, it’s still pushing buttons. If those images or narratives tap into what we aspire to, but what we don’t have, then it becomes very powerful.”
To explore the role that envy plays in our use of social media, Kross and his team designed a study to consider the relationship between passive Facebook use – “just voyeuristically scrolling,” as he puts it – and envy and mood from moment to moment. Participants received texts five times a day for two weeks, asking about their passive Facebook use since the previous message, and how they were feeling in that moment. The results were striking, he says: “The more you’re on there scrolling away, the more that elicits feelings of envy, which in turn predicts drops in how good you feel”.
No age group or social class is immune from envy, according to Andrew. In her consulting room she sees young women, self-conscious about how they look, who begin to follow certain accounts on Instagram to find hair inspiration or makeup techniques, and end up envying the women they follow and feeling even worse about themselves. But she also sees the same pattern among older businessmen and women who start out looking for strategies and tips on Twitter, and then struggle to accept what they find, which is that some people seem to be more successful than they are. “Equally, it can be friends and family who bring out those feelings of envy, around looks, lifestyle, careers and parenting – because somebody is always doing it better on social media,” she says. How much worse would it have been for Shakespeare’s Iago, who says of Cassio: “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly,” if he had been following his lieutenant on Instagram?
While envying other people is damaging enough, “We have something even more pernicious, I think,” the renowned social psychologist Sherry Turkle tells me. “We look at the lives we have constructed online in which we only show the best of ourselves, and we feel a fear of missing out in relation to our own lives. We don’t measure up to the lives we tell others we are living, and we look at the self as though it were an other, and feel envious of it.” This creates an alienating sense of “self-envy” inside us, she says. “We feel inauthentic, curiously envious of our own avatars.”
We gaze at our slimming, filtered #OutfitOfTheDay, and we want that body – not the one that feels tired and achy on the morning commute. We spit out the flavourless “edible” flowers that adorn our bircher muesli – not much of a #foodgasm in reality. We don’t know what to do with the useless inflatable unicorn when the Instagram Story has come to an end. While we are busy finding the perfect camera angle, our lives become a dazzling, flawless carapace, empty inside but for the envy of others and ourselves, in a world where black cats languish in animal shelters because they are not “selfie-friendly”.
There is a different, even darker definition of the concept of envy. For Patricia Polledri, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author of Envy in Everyday Life, the word refers to something quite dangerous, which can take the form of emotional abuse and violent acts of criminality. “Envy is wanting to destroy what someone else has. Not just wanting it for yourself, but wanting other people not to have it. It’s a deep-rooted issue, where you are very, very resentful of another person’s wellbeing – whether that be their looks, their position or the car they have. It is silent, destructive, underhand – it is pure malice, pure hatred,” she says.
This can make it very difficult for envious people to seek and receive help, because it can feel impossible for them to take in something valuable from someone else, so strong is the urge to annihilate anything good in others and in themselves. She believes envy is not innate; that it starts with an experience of early deprivation, when a mother cannot bond with her baby, and that child’s self-esteem is not nourished through his or her life.
As a cognitive behavioural therapist, Dryden is less interested in the root causes of envy, focusing instead on what can be done about it. When it comes to the kind of envy inspired by social media, he says, there are two factors that make a person more vulnerable: low self-esteem and deprivation intolerance, which describes the experience of being unable to bear not getting what you want. To overcome this, he says, think about what you would teach a child. The aim is to develop a philosophy, a way of being in the world, that allows you to recognise when someone else has something that you want but don’t have, and also to recognise that you can survive without it, and that not having it does not make you less worthy or less of a person.
We could also try to change the way we habitually use social media. Kross explains that most of the time, people use Facebook passively and not actively, idly and lazily reading instead of posting, messaging or commenting. “That is interesting when you realise it is the passive usage that is presumed to be more harmful than the active. The links between passive usage and feeling worse are very robust – we have huge data sets involving tens of thousands of people,” he says. While it is less clear how active usage affects wellbeing, there does seem to be a small positive link, he explains, between using Facebook to connect with others and feeling better.
Perhaps, though, each of us also needs to think more carefully when we do use social media actively, about what we are trying to say and why – and how the curation of our online personas can contribute to this age of envy in which we live. When I was about to post on Facebook about some good career-related news recently, my husband asked me why I wanted to do that. I did not feel comfortable answering him, because the truth is it was out of vanity. Because I wanted the likes, the messages of congratulations, and perhaps, if I am brutally honest, I wanted others to know that I was doing well. I felt ashamed. There is nothing like an overly perceptive spouse to prick one’s ego.
It is easy to justify publicising a promotion on Twitter as necessary for work, as a quick way of spreading the news to colleagues and peers. But as we type the words “Some personal news”, we could pause to ask ourselves, why are we doing this, really? Friends, family, colleagues – anyone who needs to know will find out soon enough; with news that is quite personal, do we need to make it so public? Honing your personal brand on social media may seem good for business, but it does have a price. It all creates an atmosphere where showing off – whether unapologetically or deceptively – is not just normalised but expected, and that is a space where envy can flourish.
I do not think the answer necessarily always lies in being more honest about our lives – it might sometimes lie in simply shutting up. Of course, raising awareness about previously hushed-up, devastating experiences of miscarriage or abuse or harassment can have the power to challenge stigma and change society. But ostensibly authentic posts about mindfulness, or sadness, or no makeup selfies are always designed to portray their poster in the best light.
For Polledri’s concept of envy at its most noxious, there can be no upside. But as a less extreme emotional experience, it can serve a function in our lives. Dryden differentiates between unhealthy envy and its healthy form, which, he says, “can be creative”. Just as hunger tells us we need to eat, the feeling of envy, if we can listen to it in the right way, could show us what is missing from our lives that really matters to us, Kross explains. Andrew says: “It is about naming it as an emotion, knowing how it feels, and then not interpreting it as a positive or a negative, but trying to understand what it is telling you that you want. If that is achievable, you could take proper steps towards achieving it. But at the same time, ask yourself, what would be good enough?”
When I reflect on those two moments of piercing envy that I cannot forget, I can see – once I have waded through the shame and embarrassment (so much for keeping the personal personal) – that they coincided with acute periods of unhappiness and insecurity. I was struggling to establish myself as a freelance writer and, before that, struggling to establish a social life after leaving home for university in a new city. Both of these things have improved as time has passed, but I do still feel unpleasant pangs of envy every now and then, whether I’m on social media or off it, and I see it among my friends and family. Perhaps in part it is because we do not know how to answer the question: “What would be good enough?” That is something I am still working on.
My Perfect Pictures and the Pain Behind Them
As an actress and model, I presented whatever the world wanted me to be. But there was so much more to my story.
Narratively| Reema Zaman
Photo collage by Yunuen Bonaparte.
I sit in child’s pose on the carpet, my back inches away from the heater in the wall, cradling images of the girl I used to be. I cup her many faces in my hands, like water droplets threatening to spill through laced fingers.
In each picture, I am the result of another person, their needs, opinions, objectives, desires. I came across this stack of photos tucked inside a wooden jewelry box while searching for earrings to wear for my evening performance. The contrast between the girl visible and the tales beneath fell me to my knees, to curl against this wall hoping to feel warm again.
Me at 18. Photo courtesy of Kris Weir.
Here I am at 18. The Bangkok sunlight warms my skin with its unique humidity and heat. I am being photographed by a friend for a prestigious contest. I want to be beautiful for her, to help her win. I hope my face doesn’t betray the story I carry.
It started a few months ago. My high school psychology teacher has been sending me letters. He writes entirely capitalized, in red ink. He knows my class schedule, and calls me on the classroom phone.
“I’m recording these calls,” he says.
This for him is sex. Power. Hunting. Tracking. By age 18, life has shown me enough to know that the trapping of girls’ voices in small boxes, metal or otherwise, is a favorite pastime for many men.
“You’re a naughty girl,” he writes and says over the phone, his voice hissing like oil heated in a pan. “You deserve to be punished. I can see you better than others can. You think you’re ‘Little Miss Perfect.’ The smile. The body. Perfect grades, too. Well, you need to make me happy then.”
I report the letters, the calls, the stalking, the threats to the school principal. I sit in the office chair kept for students, the plastic back grating my spine, my legs swinging like a child’s. I wonder if the principal cranks up the height of the chair to ensure most of the female students’ legs will swing. To exaggerate his authority, to instill intimidation, to procure our expected obedience.
He listens. I try my best to explain, keeping my voice clinical and stoic, outlining details as if I were writing a scene from the egalitarian eyes of a playwright. Any emotion would only be used to attack the veracity of my truth. I know because this isn’t my first brush with sexual danger. The first was when I was 11. He was a cousin, 20 years my senior. I was told, “Boys will be boys” and left to fend for myself.
“Thank you,” the principal replies. “I will handle this. Thank you for keeping this quiet.” I don’t remember offering my silence.
“You may return to class.” The principal looks away, busying himself with more important tasks.
I’m deposited back into the dragon’s lair. There I sit as he leers a smile reserved for me, lecturing on the fine nuances of human behavior. He will spend the remainder of the school year mocking me, pulling laughter from other students like water from a dark well, saying I fabricated the whole story due to a girlish crush.
“You don’t need to smile,” says my friend the photographer. I love her so much in that moment I nearly weep.
Me at 23. Photo courtesy of Deborah Lopez.
I lift another from the stack, and here I am at 23. Time has thinned my face, make-up has replaced youth. I’m an actress now, in New York City. Of the thousands taken during the photo shoot, my agents liked this headshot best.
“You look serene and strong in this one,” they tell me. How nice they think so.
Being an actress is a strange existence. We’re trained to speak beautifully, but only the words assigned to us by others. Through it all, we are scrutinized, directed, sculpted, polished until shining. Dare we not shine or speak or behave as desired, we are bid adieu.
“We’re going a different direction.” “You’re not what we’re looking for.” “You don’t fit the role, the look, the woman we need.”
These words snake through my mind daily, nightly, keeping me company. A taunting jingle all women grow to know well.
This song follows me into the night I am raped. As fear fills my body, my mind detaches to sit in a far corner of the room. There it crouches, holding its knees to its chest like a small child. Watching. Wondering. Busying herself with thoughts to distract herself from the pain-flooding flesh.
Thoughts like, “Who will I be now? What role could I possibly fit? Will I carry this night on my skin forever? Is rape like a scent, recognizable and registered by anyone to come near me? Has my name now changed from ‘woman’ to ‘victim’?”
I’m fortunate that my rapist is economical with time, pain, and me. He leaves, another day arrives. I work my shift at the restaurant, muting my brain and playing pretty, before running along to my afternoon modeling call, followed by an audition for “Gossip Girl,” this year’s most coveted show for young actresses. For my audition, I try to wrap my mouth around the vapid script. The words taste inkless, bland, as if blank paper.
“Do that scene again, and maybe giggle for us?” suggests the casting director. The producers nod enthusiastically. “We need you to be a little less.” The casting director makes the gesture of hands tamping down gravity. “Let’s just say the character isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” They all laugh. “Just try a giggle.”
I perform as directed. Giggle. Be less. Thank you for your time. Next.
Me at 25. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Patlen.
Next, age 25, one of the five images I’ve chosen for my modeling card. Different from an actor’s headshot, a modeling card displays images on both sides, four on one, a full-page photo on the other. As is the industry norm, I am in various degrees of undress.
“I love this one,” says the guy I’m dating when asked for his opinion. “It’s my favorite. Your face is like, sending a message.”
“What message?” I ask, curious if he hears the same story I do.
“Like, ‘c’mere, I want you.’” He smiles. “You know, the whole ‘come hither’ thing.” He laughs, pulls me closer.
I laugh along, return his kiss, fall into his bed.
Later as he showers, I look again at his chosen favorite. In this image, in all of them, I marvel how little of myself is left. How glossy and idealized I appear. How my anorexia, the siren I’ve battled since age 15, has performed her duty beautifully. How, in every image, while no man is physically present, the male gaze, palette, and appetite are palpable, while my truth, the good and the wounds, is rendered invisible.
Since age 17, there hasn’t been a moment that I have been single. Men know to find me; I keep falling into them. I seem to be, forever, existing by extension. Someone’s daughter, someone’s prey, someone’s lover, someone’s lullaby, someone’s landscape to plough. The more pieces of myself I lose, the more men I attract. As far as I can tell, falling in love with someone feels the same as forfeiting contact with your own voice.
Done with his shower, he returns to the bedroom, pausing briefly to flex his biceps in the bathroom mirror.
“That was fun,” he says, letting me know it’s time I leave. I hastily dress, and he ushers me toward the door.
“I’ll see you soon.” He gives me one last peck on the mouth, one last pat on the derriere. I begin walking to the elevators when I hear him call.
“Nearly forgotten.” He holds out my modeling card.
“Oh. Thank you.” I take the card, wait for the elevator.
Looking down at the photo he deemed his favorite, I think of his words earlier, murmured right after sex, declaring his territory like a dog claiming a patch of grass: “You’re mine.”
I had nodded, and agreed, “I am yours.”
The elevator arrives. I descend.
Me at 27. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Patlen.
Here I am 27, my anorexia now at her worst, aptly reflecting the degree of turmoil in my life. In addition to acting and modeling, I’ve started writing and producing music. This image is taken during a photo shoot for a music video. In all the other photos, I’m smiling, pretending to laugh or be seductive. This one image is snatched in a slim moment between rehearsal and performance. Perhaps you see a lovely, young girl; I see a woman exposed, drowning in the slipstream of her husband’s shadow.
Ours is a feral love. Igniting quickly from passion, our wild descent has been equally swift.
He calls them “sister-wives.” He says, “Baby, it’s for your own good. This way, the pressure to make me happy doesn’t fall completely on you.”
I can’t tell if he’s actually seeing other women, just telling me he is, or threatening that he will; perhaps their phantom presence is the intended heartbreak. Whatever the truth, the other women have inhabited our home, haunting my every breath.
We live in a half-burnt barn, deep in the belly of the woods, so removed from civilization that we don’t have cell reception. Aside from his taste for other women, he has a flare for sudden anger. Every time he boasts of hypothetical conquests, I keep myself from shouting, crying, arguing – I don’t want to lose his love or exacerbate his temper, especially without another soul for miles. I watch him roar, the man I love receding into dilated pupils. I use what I know as an actress, and as a girl trained to endear the world of men, to calm him.
He has never once hit me, and love convinces me that though he will attack plenty he will never lay a hand. Every night, we sleep curled away from each other, as if our very skin recoils from the other’s nearness. I lie awake night upon night wishing he’d actually hit me. Then I’d have something tangible to point to as reason to leave, as proof of grief. The catch with emotional warfare is that it’s inflicted with far more stealth and elegance than abuse delivered by touch. Making it easier to accept, rationalize, forgive, page after page.
He is working to rebuild the barn into a family home. Nestled into the back of the barn is our queen-sized mattress. Surrounding the mattress are space heaters and piles of bricks. Naked light bulbs strung from the rafters punctuate the space. He and I know to move around them by sheer memory; the burning glass promises to singe the skin if touched.
To supplement my income from acting and photo shoots, I babysit. As is my duty, every week I deposit my earnings into his wallet. Although I’m usually too hungry, cold, or tired to connect a full thought, while giving him my money, caring for his needs, hearing him yell, I occasionally wonder, Where is my voice? How is this my life? How have I become this woman?
Finally, one night, watching him pace, listing all the ways I’ve failed to please him, it dawns on me: I’ve encircled myself with danger because it feels familiar.
In a flash, everything coalesces. The haze lifts, revealing my tale, the seemingly disparate fragments now connecting in pristine clarity. I became this woman by swallowing my voice through wound after wound. I’ve taken the world’s whippings for being born a girl as reason to believe I deserve only punishment and degradation, inflicted on myself, accepted toward myself.
I need to leave. Leave him, the coffin we call a home, the life of smallness I know as mine. Made small by his ego. Made small by the industries I’ve worked in. Made small by the girl I need to be if I want to draw and keep his love.
Recent photo of me. Photo courtesy of Erika Ellis.
I am now 34. I left him. I left the girl I was. I left acting and modeling and stepped into the life of a writer. My first act was writing a memoir. There I traced my narrative, sutured my lashes, and reclaimed my body from the hands of others. My body is now mine, my voice returned.
Initially, the news of my leaving acting and modeling to become a writer was met with resistance ranging from disbelief, worry, outrage, scorn, to laughter, from nearly every friend and relative, each unsolicited opinion preceded with the phrase we women know so well: “I love you, but…”
As a teenager and young woman, sharing that I wanted to be or was an actress and model had always been met with, “That makes sense,” and a smile. In contrast, the notion of a woman voicing and designing her truth, professionally or personally, that she would dare dream so audaciously, venture beyond the designated convention, or transform possibility into reality will strike spoken and unspoken fear in so many hearts.
I wonder if my specific appearance was – is – a compounding role in others’ resistance. Perhaps it is particularly shocking, blasphemous even, that I, a beautiful woman, once quiet, compliant, and deferential, have decided to no longer use my physical identity as currency and worthiness, to instead quest and succeed at a life fashioned from my mind and my voice – my inherent, authentic power. If all young girls and women committed such treason, patriarchy would collapse.
Hence resistance, and my stubborn persistence. In addition to being a writer, I’m now a public speaker – in tonight’s performance I’ll be speaking purely as myself. These days, such is my career. I speak on the resilience we women hold within. I speak on healing and rising from the many ways the world tries to bruise us into submission and smallness. I speak on our right to reclaim our narrative from the hands of others, and how we are each capable of authoring our life.
The confluence of my training as an actress and the experiences I’ve been through has prepared me perfectly for this life. Though now the words I speak are not assigned to me.
I place the girl I was into the box. The chill from years past has been replaced with gratitude for all that led me here, and pride that I’ve transformed every piece into poetry. I rise to stand.
Reema Zaman is an award-winning actress, speaker, activist, and author of the acclaimed memoir, I Am Yours. Her work has been featured in Vogue, The Guardian, Ms. Magazine, Salon, and elsewhere. The 2018 Oregon Literary Arts Writer of Color Fellow, her memoir has been adapted into the curriculum of several high schools through an Innovation Grant from the Oregon Department of Education, and she is an ambassador of the International Rescue Committee. Follow her @ReemaZaman on Twitter and Instagram, and at http://www.reemazaman.com.
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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published April 8, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.