I’ve always been struck by the power of envy. Other than anger, it is perhaps the most commanding emotion, able to instantly turn our stomachs and perceptions upside down.
Envy is the realization that someone else has something that we want. There is nothing more universal or human than this. After all, inequality has existed on multiple levels, such as the material and the genetic, in every human society that has ever existed. Even if we have the nicest house and toys in our immediate tribe, there will always be a talent or bodily advantage (such as extreme beauty) worth coveting amongst our peers. We are all born with different predispositions, and it’s just as easy to desire traits that are the birthright of others as it is to desire their creature comforts.
This is why the revolutionary spirit, and the drive towards something akin to socialism or communism, will never die out. As long as envy exists, these two world-views will survive and thrive. Great revolutionaries have realized this, and have built their propaganda campaigns around prosperous, envy-producing minorities. We saw this with the Nazis and the Jews, the Sinhalese and Tamils, and the Hutus and Tutsis.
The problem with envy is that it’s hatred’s close cousin. Thus, once someone is smoldering with jealousy, it only takes a small amount of extra fuel to create full-blown wrath. At this point, self-control and social niceties become mere afterthoughts. Envy is at least socially conscious. Anger, however, will tear down villages and families with little compunction. This is why the above-mentioned atrocities were one small hop away from jealousy.
But it seems that envy also has a positive side. After all, desire drives hard work and accomplishment, and nothing fuels this yearning more than seeing someone we know with someone that we want. It can therefore be argued that material progress is fueled by this most unstable emotion. The question becomes: How does one harness the power of envy while also protecting against its cantankerous dark side?
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have an answer to this burning question. Instead we’ve gotten quite adept at fueling this poisonous emotion by building complex social technologies that allow us to, among other things, see how much better than us our friends and mere acquaintances have it. In a few clicks you can see the amazing food, locale, or event your ex lover, or high-school rival, is currently enjoying. Nothing turns us green quite as quickly as tangible proof of our perceived inferiority, and we now have a variety of technologies that we use as digital barometers of our self worth. This is not to say that these services are not immensely useful and uplifting on occasion. However, like everything, they come with a cost. In this case the cost is envy – the one deadly sin that I would most like to expunge. Not just because it’s a good deal (wrath, its close cousin, is free), but because of the vast harm it does to our interactions with others and ourselves.
This article originally appeared on BigThink