Happiness, envy, and social inequality

I usually focus my posts on discourse related to mental health as it applies to debilitating situations like depression, anxiety, etc. the so called mental disorders. However, I’m often interested in the mental well-being related discourse on a much wider range of behavior and thriving and suffering. An op-ed article in the Sunday NYT, titled The Downside of Inciting Envy by Arthur C. Brooks is a great case in point.

Mr. Brooks addresses an interesting topic, envy, and the change in the levels of envy in the U.S. population as of late. First, the author discusses the historical context in which American’s have demonstrated relatively low levels of envy compared with other nations, and this is attributed to our myth of meritocracy and opportunity. Then, envy is situated as a significant source of mental and, indirectly (but explicitly) physical, suffering, and hence the enemy of “Happiness”. The shift towards higher levels of envy in the U.S. is then attributed to an erosion in the belief in opportunity. This quote sums up the link:

People who believe that hard work brings success do not begrudge others their prosperity. But if the game looks rigged, envy and a desire for redistribution follow.

Mr. Brooks concludes therefore that the nation needs a radical opportunity agenda in order to combat rising levels of envy and thus unhappiness and ill health.

This has long been a pet peeve of mine, thus my careful inclusion above of the qualifier, myth of meritocracy. That this is a fact of life in the U.S. has been well established and pre-dates the revolution. Yet, the belief in meritocracy and opportunity persists at such a level as it defines us as a nation different from other societies around the world. I believe that it is the belief in meritocracy that has allowed the differences in income inequality that Mr. Brooks discusses (for a recent and disturbing update, see “Ten States Where Income Inequality Has Soared” via 24/7 Wall St. But I digress.

The question I’m primarily interested in here is the relationship between happiness and envy, and what we as a society should do about. What do you think, does envy erode happiness? If so, what should we do as a country? Modify public policy and spending to increase economic opportunity? Or, reconsider the sources of envy and happiness?

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One thought on “Happiness, envy, and social inequality

  1. Envy – as used in the NYTimes op-ed which I did not read (trust your very brief summary) – seems a euphemism for unconscious anger seething just below the surface, ready to explode. Does a society which fosters such inequality, creating a powder keg of anger plant the seeds of happiness or suffering? It might seem that one’s answer would depend upon which side of the economic divide one’s finances rest upon. However, every great empire built on greed and excess eventually collapses and then the overlords are fed to the lions or meet with other forms of wrathful justice or else go into hiding, living out their days in obscurity. Reconsidering the sources of envy and happiness – now that would be truly revolutionary.

    I am contemplating a similar question in the field of education policy. The latest developmental psychology textbook laments the great achievement divide between those who drop out of school and those who rise to the top, never seeming to question whether a deeper restructuring of society is in order – one which seeks not to build GNP (gross national product) so much as GNH (gross national happiness). Truly we do need to reconsider our end goal and whether our current strategies are working.

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