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It Destroys Our Happiness and Undermines Our Prosperity - What to do About Envy?

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A German business executive in Berlin once told me how, at his company's quarterly press conferences, company spokesmen would try to play down success. If good news was too good, he maintained, there would be negative fall out from media, unions, the churches, politicians and public opinion. Why? It was Germany's egalitarian culture that was at fault, he contended, and fear that that dreaded emotion called envy would rear its ugly head. 

There's no doubt that envy is a pernicious thing. It's one of the seven deadly sins, along with pride, gluttony, sloth, lust, wrath and greed. It's the only one, as the line goes, that's truly never any fun. Aristotle distinguished between good envy (admiring) and bad. Note to the great philosopher: most envy is pretty bad.

To be clear. Envy is not jealousy. The latter normally involves affairs of the heart, and specifically relates to what one has. In contrast to jealousy, envy is resentment generated by what others have, accompanied often by a feeling of ill will toward those who have it. The writer Joseph Epstein said that if jealousy is the "green-eyed monster," envy is "cross-, squinty-, and blearily red-eyed." Now that's a creature.

This insidious little varmint is usually plotting and scheming, seldom turning up out in the open. Envy is universal, part of the human condition. But culture may matter to some extent. I once came across a story, almost certainly apocryphal, about an English tourist sitting in a cafe at a sea side resort in Florida. Along comes the waiter with the man's cocktail when suddenly, both at the same moment, the two gaze at a beautiful white yacht just off the coast. As the guest mutters something derisive, and envious, the young American declares, "one day I'll have one of those." 

If, as it is said, that greed is the engine of capitalism, then envy is surely the driver of socialism. 

Did I say that envy is rarely seen out in the open? French President Francois Hollande says quite openly, "I don't like the rich." Hollande wanted to raise tax rates on the wealthy to 75 percent. Note to the French President: In 1975 Denis Healey, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, increased the higher rate of tax on incomes of £20,000 and above to 83 per cent. Those earning more than £8,000 a year paid 60 per cent. The rich got poorer. The poor became poorer, too. As Winston Churchill put it, "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."

How much nature, how much nurture lurks behind our blearily red-eyed friend?

It is from German that we have the expression "schadenfreude," pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude is what the envious enjoy when the envied get their comeuppance (Healey was once quoted as having said, we'll "tax the pips until they squeak"). On the other end of the spectrum, Buddhists have a word called "mudita," which means finding joy in the happiness and success of others. Schadenfreude seems to be picked up as a borrowed word pretty much all around the world. Mudita, less so.

In a paper published in 2001 by two British researchers, Daniel Zizzo and Andrew Oswald, described how test subjects were given an equal amount of cash to play in a computerized gambling game. After the game, and after winning different amounts, each participant had the opportunity to pay a fee in order to reduce the holdings of the biggest cash winners. Two-thirds elected to do so, even though it made them poorer as a result. 

This is likely the feeling politicians everywhere seek to tap into, this yearning for so-called justice and tax fairness, when they pursue redistributionist policies, even when the actual consequences of these policies tend to be counter productive. Sometimes disastrously so. 

But these feelings run deep. A new study conducted by two German universities (http://www.tu-darmstadt.de/vorbeischauen/aktuell/ni_63808.en.jsp) finds that Facebook has become an unprecedented platform for "social comparison," and not in a good way. One researcher says that rampant envy is a prime byproduct, observing: "We were surprised by how many people have a negative experience from Facebook with envy leaving them feeling lonely, frustrated or angry."

So much for social media connecting us into one big, happy family. Perhaps it's time for a Global Envy Awareness Campaign. And time to spread a little mudita as antidote.