Monday, January 5, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 (pages 67-76), “Envy”

Envy “is one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions [p. 67].” Children evince evidence of envy at an early age; educators and other adults must always appear scrupulously evenhanded in their dealings with children. Adults are just as envious, but somewhat better at concealing it. Envy is probably the motive behind the support for democracy. Women typically are envious of other women, and men are envious of other men in the same profession.

Envy undermines happiness – it generates pain from what others possess, instead of pleasure from one’s own possessions, and might even motivate measures to deprive others of perceived advantages. Unrestrained envy can destroy excellence. Fortunately, admiration is a countervailing emotion, and one that should be nurtured.

Envy in adulthood might reflect childhood injustices. Envious people imagine all sorts of slights, and their company becomes so unwelcome that actual slights are then forthcoming. There’s a type of circularity linking envy and unhappiness: envious people are unhappy, but it requires happiness to overcome envy. Nevertheless, the recognition of envy in oneself is helpful to overcoming it. Efforts should be invested in thinking in absolute terms, how one is doing objectively, without making odious comparisons with others. “With the wise man, what he has does not cease to be enjoyable because some one else has something else [p. 71].” If you see someone, your inferior, better rewarded than yourself, your best strategy is to ignore it and enjoy what you have. Indeed, the happiness that you then possess will make you the object of envy: “After all, what is more enviable than happiness [p. 71]?” And even the better–rewarded or more successful person always has someone still more successful to envy: success is no cure for envy!

Though modesty is regarded as a virtue, excessively modest people require too much reassurance, and shy away from tasks in which they could succeed. Modest people often end up envious and unhappy; they are apt to try to bring down more successful people. Russell supports the instilling of self-esteem in the young, which will forestall efforts to preclude excellence in others.

People do not envy those who really are out of their sphere, those with whom they are not directly competing. The doctrines of democracy and socialism have lent greater scope to envy. Fatigue, too, can generate envy. But the source of envy might not always be direct. A man who is envious of others in his profession might really feel inadequate because of an unhappy family life.

In the past a person only envied his neighbors. Now, with better education and communication a person can envy people worldwide, and many people do. Why is there so much hatred? People feel dissatisfied, and suspect that others possess the means to happiness that they themselves lack. We are like apes in a zoo, who seem to be saddened by their recognition that they are missing out on something better, a higher existence. Modern man knows there is something better, but he doesn’t know how to grasp it. Envy at least has the almost saving grace of being an expression of our pain. The way out is to transcend oneself, to enlarge one’s heart.

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