Conspicuous Coveting

As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed with their own passion. — Antisthenes (c. 445–365 B.C.)

The words envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably, but a semantic distinction in the usage of these dispositions is worth noting. Envy generally refers to a feeling of desire to obtain another person’s advantages, success, or possessions; whereas jealousy is a feeling of resentment toward others who have something you feel should belong to you. The additional fear of losing what you have, or not getting what you want, can merge with feelings of discontentment when surveying life’s inherent unfairness. Humans are always in a state of acquisition or loss―moving toward or away from experiences, relationships, and objects. Possessions and relationships are often replaced as new situations and desires emerge, but the relinquishment everything we have owned and experienced is unavoidable.

Comparison/contrast methodology is not exclusive to creative writing and literary criticism; it can represent how we evaluate ourselves in relation to those around us. Most individuals have acted as their own actuary in terms of assessing a lifetime of possessions, relationships, and achievements. Estimates of self-worth are not created in a vacuum, and the influence of our neighbors, family, or cohorts can often be as powerful as cultural values and age norms. However, exposure to childhood trauma, developmental gaps, and unfortunate socioeconomic circumstances make it more difficult to thrive in a competitive world or feel secure in normative social atmospheres. The less you have, the more you notice how much others have already obtained.

Emotional and behavioral equanimity depend on calibrating individualized parameters of well-being, and deviation from one’s optimum level of functioning is usually where psychological dysphoria (an egodystonic state) and interpersonal conflict occurs. Although the capacity for envy and jealousy is built into our brain’s survival circuits, the degree and frequency of these dispositions is culturally exploited (i.e., consumer materialism). A life based on perennial begrudging is a misguided use of time and can lead to self-imposed torture. Continual comparison results in obsessive measuring under the guise of healthy competition. While coveting the accomplishments or life experiences of others can be a spur for productivity, it can also be a catalyst for anxiety, fear, anger, and resentment. Finding an operational equilibrium that is relatively immune to the toxic rivalry of dissimilitude is what remains imperative for establishing self-worth.


Manufactured Impetus

Tony Montana: Me, I want what’s coming to me.

Manny: Oh, well what’s coming to you?

Tony Montana: The world, chico, and everything in it. (excerpt from the movie Scarface)

During the height of the U.S. economic collapse in 2008, when the Richard Fulds of the financial sector were busy cashing in the bulk of their embezzled casino chips, the housing market and equity markets were coming unglued by a predictable combination of rapacious opportunists and mounting private debt. Without sufficient monetary policies and credit regulation, “survival of the richest” became de rigueur, and complex financial tools were used to keep the flames burning in a hot-air bubble of fiscal temerity.

Garrett Hardin, an American ecologist, warned about the problems of excessive human consumption and overpopulation in a paper entitled The Tragedy of the Commons (written for a scientific journal in 1968). The basic premise of his article outlined the negative consequences and environmental impacts of excessively self-interested behavior. Of course, this pathology of egotism will eventually and ironically effect those who are dogmatically self-interested in multifarious ways. Even more disconcerting is the increasing trend of unmitigated greed, in lieu of limited resources, that often results in psychological projection against the least empowered segments of society.

Incentives shouldn’t be the only reason why people are motivated to do something, but they can be a necessary and understandable reason. Intrinsically ethical behavior shouldn’t have to be incentivized, but sometimes a fringe benefit is provided for the compensation of time, and it never hurts to reinforce good behavior. However, when incentives are unethical, the motivation for doing something inevitably becomes unsustainable in the long run. Misguided incentives can foster self-centered behavior that will backfire when a critical mass effect has been achieved, and the justifications for such behavior are often perpetuated by compartmentalization, denial, and the visceral pleasures of undiluted avarice.

Cultural values can be captivating, and the collective influence on motivating the pursuit of those values is impossible to appraise on an individual level. Humans generally want to flourish in culturally constructed spheres that procure acceptance with collateral social ranking. Status symbols can substitute for virtue, and the implications of seeking self-indulgent incentives may engender an “all pomp and no circumstance” charisma that is both interpersonally dangerous and imprudently unrealistic (i.e., Ryan Jenkins).

The wrong incentives create the wrong values, and the wrong values create the worst in everyone.