Wipe That Green Off Your Face, Dear

MidWeek (Hawaii) - - Front Page - Amy Alkon

I’m a very en­vi­ous per­son, though I don’t act on it (mean­ing I don’t try to mess things up for peo­ple who are do­ing well). Where does envy stem from? How can I get rid of it? —

We think of envy as an ugly, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive emo­tion, but it’s re­ally just a tool, like a jack­ham­mer or a blender. To un­der­stand this, it helps to un­der­stand that even emo­tions that make us feel crappy have a job to do — mo­ti­vat­ing us to act in ways that will help us sur­vive and make a bunch of lit­tle bug­gers who’ll tot­ter off through the gen­er­a­tions.

In other words, envy is adap­tive. Envy is a form of so­cial com­par­i­son that prob- ably evolved to help us keep tabs on how well we’re do­ing rel­a­tive to our ri­vals. As evo­lu­tion­ary so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Abra­ham (“Bram”) Bu­unk and his col­leagues ex­plain, envy pushes us to dial up our game so we can “nar­row the gap.” So envy is ba­si­cally a so­cial alarm clock: “Yoo-hoo … get crack­ing, girl! That witch is about to get that pro­mo­tion, and you’ll be lucky to end up ex­ec­u­tive vice-scullery maid.”

Bu­unk and his team ex­plain that there are ac­tu­ally two kinds of envy: ma­li­cious and be­nign. Be­nign envy pushes peo­ple to work harder in hopes of match­ing or beat­ing the com­pe­ti­tion. Ma­li­cious envy is the nasty kind — the kind that mo­ti­vates a per­son to loosen the lad­der rungs, hop­ing to cause their golden-girl co­worker to top­ple to her (pro­fes­sional) death.

The up­shot? Envy isn’t some­thing to be ashamed of. You should just see that you use it in a pos­i­tive way — as a tool for self-mo­ti­va­tion in­stead of co­worker sab­o­tage. How­ever, get­ting ahead isn’t just a solo act; it’s of­ten a co­op­er­a­tive en­deavor. To de­cide when to co­op­er­ate and when to com­pete, con­sider the level of “scarcity.” When re­sources are scarce — like when there’s just one job avail­able — go af­ter it with ev­ery­thing you’ve got (within eth­i­cal bound­aries, of course). But when the re­wards aren’t lim­ited, it’s good to be the sort of per­son who brings along other peo­ple. This tends to make oth­ers more likely to do nice things for you in re­turn — even help­ing you get ahead … and with­out your hir­ing a hacker to re­pro­gram Miss Fab­u­lous’ com­puter so her screen saver is a pic of the boss with a Hitler mus­tache.

My girl­friend’s won­der­ful. Un­for­tu­nately, when­ever we have a dis­agree­ment, she shares it on so­cial me­dia. She feels she has a right to do that be­cause it’s part of her life. Am I not en­ti­tled to a pri­vate life while I’m with her?

The long­ing for pri­vacy — keep­ing cer­tain info about your­self from public con­sump­tion — is a very hu­man thing, a de­sire that prob­a­bly evolved out of our need to pro­tect our rep­u­ta­tion. In an­ces­tral times, hav­ing a bad rep­u­ta­tion could lead to a per­son be­ing booted from their band and made to go it alone — back when “fast food” would’ve been all the zippy small an­i­mals they couldn’t catch while they were starv­ing to death.

Con­trary to your girl­friend’s no­tion that “re­la­tion­ship” is just an­other way of say­ing “t wo- per­son sur­veil­lance state,” you have a right to pri­vacy. This is a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right, ex­plained Louis Bran­deis and Sa­muel War­ren in the Har­vard Law Re­view in 1890, and it comes out of our right to be left alone. So, yes, you are en­ti­tled to pick the “pri­vacy set­tings” on your own life, be­cause the in­for­ma­tion about your thoughts, emo­tions and ro­man­tic in­ter­ac­tions be­longs to you.

To stop your girl­friend from turn­ing your re­la­tion­ship into a giant data breach, trig­ger her sym­pa­thy — ex­plain­ing how aw­ful it feels to be­come in­fo­tain­ment for a bunch of strangers (and, worse, peo­ple you know). Bet­ter yet, help her feel it: “Honey … just imag­ine your ther­a­pist’s new ac­count: ‘Heard In Ses­sion.’”

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