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Envy, The Root Cause of Unhappiness
Thou Shalt Not Covet, for Gratitude Will Turn What You Have Into Enough
“Enough is as good as a feast.” — Sir Thomas Malory
Imagine the secretary problem: you are trying to hire the best secretary out of n rankable candidates and can only make a hiring decision immediately after the interview, which are held one by one in a random, non-reversible order. This means that every candidate will be benchmarked against the quality of all previous interviews, and that you can not recall a candidate you regret not hiring. No matter who you end up hiring, your obvious dilemma is, “what if the secretary I hired is not the best?”
A glimpse at your neighbour’s secretary probably exacerbates that concern: “do they have a better secretary than me? What was their hiring strategy? How do I re-hire a better secretary?”
The secretary dilemma describes most of life, existentially. We know that death is inevitable, and we know that time does not flow backwards. Naturally, we optimize for the best (after all, we live just once). Often times, when we are caught up in the perpetual seeking of upgrades, we are simultaneously spending that time being discontent with what we currently have. Although ambition is not a bad thing, the perpetual pursuit of betterment often can’t help but produce a sense of envy towards others and resentment towards one’s own present.
∴ The root cause of unhappiness, or, being stuck in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction with life, is not the desire to “have everything”, but the illusion that there is always something better out there.
Opportunity Cost: Why Childhood Was Always The Happiest
“You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? Do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?” — Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)
You can be anything, but you can not be everything.
One of the reasons why childhood, in rosy retrospect, always felt so happy is because it was the la la land of pure potential: as a child, you did not have a resume, you did not have any failures, but neither did you have successes. All you had was time and pluripotency. Often times, when we mourn the loss of childhood happiness what really causes us grief is the fact that we’ll never get that potential back, we must now specialize and not look back, we must kill 99% of what we could’ve been in order to have a shot of making something out of the 1% we chose to become.
Why can’t we be everything we wanted to be? Because aging is one big secretary dilemma.
“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” — Graham Greene
In the shadow of every decision is the opportunity cost of all other possibilities that were not chosen to be actualized. Potential, as a function of time, is a bundle of possibilities that is malleable until solidified into real experiences. The older you become, the less potential you have left and the less flexible your future becomes. A decision to become X is, simultaneously, the sacrifice of the possibility of becoming A, B, C … n. While being highly self-aware grants us the unprecedented freedom to reflect on the past to make better future decisions, it also curses us with the self-torment of ruminating on regrets.
∴ Since we can not become everything in the first place, there is no point in comparing who we are today to who someone else chose to be a long time ago. And since time does not go back, what good does it serve to wonder ‘what if’? You and your neighbour have made different sacrifices, you likely lack what they have, but they also likely lack something that you have. Therefore, do not envy others.
Envy, Not Greed, Runs The World
“What good is envy? It’s the one sin you can’t have any fun at.” — Charlie Munger
Comparison really is the thief of joy; envy is an inside job.
Contrary to popular Left-wing belief, it is not poverty that fuels crime, rather RELATIVE poverty. In areas where inequality is high (this is measured by the Gini coefficient), violent crime is also more prevalent: for example, Canada has 6 homicides/100,000 population while Sri Lanka has 2. When wealth inequality is steep, people (mostly men) resort to instinctive aggression (see: wealth inequality aggravates violent crime, but not property crime).
The instinct for rivalrous competition dates back to our Palaeolithic ancestors whose relative, not absolute, status determined their reproductive success: we have always existed in dominance hierarchies, the comparison of where you sat on this distribution was what determined your sexual reward. We are wired to be ambitious, the hedonic treadmill is not a bug, but a feature.
Thus, we have a natural tendency to feel as if the present is never good enough: we covet because we always return to a state of being just shy of satisfaction. Growing up, my mother always used the Chinese idiom, “吃着碗里，看着锅里” (to eat from a bowl while glancing at what's in the pot), to describe the human proclivity to have insatiable desire.
“I’ll be truly successful once I get to be where my manager is.”
“I’ll finally make it after I finish this degree and start working at that highly competitive firm.”
“I’ll be happy after I find the one to marry and settle down with.”
It seems that somewhere out there, there is always someone with a life that is ever-so-slightly better wherever you are right now.
∴ The world is not driven by greed, but envy. The ultimate motivation for ruthless improvement is not wanting it all but wanting to always have what is better than our neighbours — to always outcompete and climb up the hierarchy.
Gratitude: The Antidote to Envy
“Gratitude turns what you have into enough.” — Anonymous
In a recent conversation with a fellow reader who had reached out via email (yes, I write back!), we talked about the work of Proust. I told him that one of my favourite quotes from Proust is, “desire makes everything blossom, possession makes everything wither and fade,” because it stresses the significance of gratitude. Everyone wants to be grateful, this isn't controversial — of course giving thanks is good — but what makes gratitude, as a practice, hard to maintain is that we tend to overvalue what we don't have and undervalue what we do.
∴ The polarity of gratitude and resentment describes exactly this: when we are not actively being grateful for what we already have, we grow resentful, at our neighbours, at the world, at God, at ourselves, for not having achieved ‘better’.
Be grateful, show appreciation, and cherish what you have. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today. Perhaps we really shouldn’t covet. Perhaps the grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s greener where you water it.
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
— Lao Tzu
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