When the coronavirus hit France, Leila Slimani, a popular French-Moroccan novelist, and her family left Paris for their country home. Once there, Ms. Slimani began writing a quarantine diary for the newspaper Le Monde. The response, especially from people in teeny Parisian apartments, was so scathing, she apparently abandoned the series. When the billionaire David Geffen posted photos of his mega-yacht on Instagram while he quarantined in the Grenadines, the backlash led him to turn his account private.
Quarantine envy: If it’s not a widespread term yet, it should be. Envy, of course, is the joy-devouring emotion of craving what others have. Even before the pandemic, social media was linked to rising levels of the emotion. “Social media magnifies and creates instant, destructive envy,” said Andrew Oswald, professor of economics and behavioral science at the University of Warwick in England, and a co-author of a study on whether envy is societally harmful (short answer: yes). “There’s a globalization of envy and in the longer run, we have to regulate it.”
I’ve seen the discontent over the years, in my day job, moderating reader comments. Growing wealth disparity, along with ubiquitous social media, appears to have made us all less satisfied (and snarkier). The pandemic has fueled the fire. Essential workers envy those working at home. People who were laid off envy those who weren’t. Those home-schooling young children envy those who aren’t. We all envy the rich. Those studying the topic find the reaction understandable.
“When people are miserable, their resilience to other bad things becomes reduced,” said Dr. Oswald. “It’s easier to shrug off others’ good fortune when your life is OK. It’s been a terrible time for many people and the last thing they want to see is a millionaire’s house with a giant lawn.”
Envy, studies show, presents as a measurable brain response and is quantifiable via self-report scales. (Researchers suspect envy is underreported because people are ashamed to admit to it.)
“Envy is an ugly two-headed monster,” said Dr. Christine Harris, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies emotions. “One head wants what someone else has. The other head chews on the first, for having these negative feelings.”
Jens Lange, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany, agreed that the pandemic has created conditions that are ripe for envy.
“At the heart of envy is social comparison of your situation with someone else’s,” Dr. Lange said. “It’s a basic process across all cultures.”
He added: “The pandemic is increasing the divide between the advantaged and disadvantaged, so there’s more opportunity to compare yourself to others in unflattering ways. You may also realize certain things are important that you never thought about. Say you’re alone in lockdown. Before, you were never socially isolated. Now your envy increases toward people locked down in others’ company.”
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