When Others Succeed: Envy and Other Taboo Attitudes

We’ve all got this one friend. The one who seems to have gotten it all figured out. The one who’s got life down pat, who succeeds at just about every endeavor he pursues, who goes from Point A to Point B of his perfectly planned life without so much as ruffling his collar. The one who seems to have discovered the secret formula to balancing family life and career life, raising excellent kids on one hand and swiftly climbing up the career ladder on the other. If you’re colleagues at work, naturally, he gets the promotion over you. And of course, you feel happy for this friend of yours; it’s another well-deserved feather added to his cap, and you’re absolutely thrilled for this additional success of his. Or are you really?

Although many of us may deny it, it is not uncommon to feel a tinge of envy at other people’s success and good fortune, especially those of people in our personal social circles. In fact, as philosopher Alain de Botton pointed out, “the closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy.” If we take to comparing our lives with others, we don’t do it against celebrities or other prominent people. The usual reference point we use are the very people immediately around us—members of our own family, our close friends, our associates at work. These are the people who are likely to become the targets of the Scarcity Mentality.

The Scarcity Mentality is a concept first introduced by Stephen Covey in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” According to Covey, people with this mindset see life as comparable to a single big pie—if someone got a big slice of the pie, everyone else would have to make do with whatever’s left, which means a smaller share for everybody else. In other words, for someone else to be added upon, others need to be subtracted from. This mentality is consistent with the zero-sum paradigm described by some sociologists, suggesting that certain social groups only have a fixed quantity of resources—attention, power and prestige included—such that for someone to gain these resources, another person must suffer their loss.

Although they may be connected in a single continuum, feeling a little envious of other people’s successes is different from being deeply scripted in the Scarcity Mentality. People in whom the Scarcity Mentality is deeply ingrained feel as if someone else’s success and gains are their personal failure and loss. Covey explains that outwardly, they may express their happiness for others’ achievements and gains, but inwardly they are tormented by the idea that they’ve somehow lost in this leg of the competition other people call life. For people with a Scarcity Mentality, there can be no situations when they win and the other party also wins (a Win/Win solution). It’s either they win and others lose, or vice versa (a Win/Lose solution).

If the Scarcity Mentality sounds bad, here’s something that might even be worse: Schadenfreude. A German word with no English counterpart, Schadenfreude pertains to the emotion of pleasure at others’ misfortune. Say that work friend of yours who’s bound to get the promotion is currently having problems with an all-important project he’s working on. You know the management is not going to be pleased if he messes it up, and might even consider giving you the promotion instead if he messes up bad enough. You know you should be feeling bad for your friend, but you aren’t. In fact, you’re pleased with how the whole situation is going. It’s a real taboo to express your glee at your friend’s troubles, of course, but the emotion of Schadenfreude has already filled you.

Considered in the Philippine context, the Scarcity Mentality and Schadenfreude may remind you of something commonly branded to Filipinos: the Crab Mentality. Although all three concepts are related to a certain degree, the Crab Mentality may very well take the crown (or the devil’s trident, so to speak) as the most spiteful of all. While the Scarcity Mentality mainly involves feeling bad when others are having it good, and Schadenfreude involves feeling good when others are having it bad—both of which do not involve taking an active part in generating the ill fortune of others—the Crab Mentality denotes actual action on the part of the envious person to cause the misfortune of others so as to bring them down to a lower level. This fierce competitiveness thus becomes worse in that it is acted out to prevent the success of others. In such a society, a crab striving to get out of the bucket is not only shown false happiness at its progress, nor is it met with a horde of pleased crabs when it falls out of its own accord. Instead, the crab nearing its goal gets actively clawed upon and pulled down by those below it, so there is rarely a chance of it ever succeeding.

What is there to be done, then, in the face of these conditions? If society is pervaded by the Scarcity Mentality, Schadenfreude, and the Crab Mentality, is there hope for collective progress at all?

Covey has suggested another mindset alternative to the Scarcity Mentality—the Abundance Mentality. Based on a deep sense of personal worth, the Abundance Mentality upholds a paradigm that there is enough to go around for everybody. Instead of the zero-sum paradigm of the Scarcity Mentality that dictates a person’s success will have to mean someone else’s failure, the Abundance Mentality espouses the positive-sum paradigm in which Win/Win solutions are possible and both parties can derive gains from the situation. People with an Abundance Mentality do not feel threatened or diminished by others’ successes, encourage the growth of others, are comfortable sharing prestige and profits, and recognize that possibilities for collective gains and joint development exist.

As for the Philippine context, what have we to counter the Crab Mentality ingrained in our culture? If it’s identified as worse than harboring the Scarcity Mentality or Schadenfreude, do we have anything in our arsenal stronger than even the Abundance Mentality to oppose it?

Fortunately, the answer is yes—reviving the Bayanihan Spirit. Bayanihan is the Filipino tradition of helping a family move to a new location with members of the community literally carrying the family’s house to its new place. This practice embodies a solution that’s even more admirable than the Abundance Mentality’s Win/Win offering, in that it involves selfless sacrifice for the good of another. It’s ironic yet interesting to note that a race known for its Crab Mentality and Kanya-Kanya Syndrome also used to be the race known the world over for its altruistic and noble Bayanihan tradition. If we can redeem this quality as a people recognizing that interdependence, communal unity, and the willingness to sacrifice for a good cause can achieve so much more than the individual striving for personal gain and superiority, then we might just stand a chance in finally effecting the positive societal changes we have long yearned for. ♣

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