Quarantine Envy Got You Down? You’re Not Alone

A beach house, a suburban home, a home without children, a home filled with family: These days, everyone wants something that someone else has.

Credit...Till Lauer

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.”

That’s been true for Bethany Grace Howe, 52, C.E.O. of the TransHealth Data Collective in Eugene, Ore. Ms. Howe, who describes herself as a “raging extrovert,” is quarantined solo, except when her young daughter visits.

“I’m envious of people who have more than cats to talk to,” Ms. Howe said. “I see my friend and her family on Facebook doing puzzles. And I think, It would be nice to be doing puzzles with a family. People have told me, ‘Turn it off,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but that’s the only social connection I have.’

Others envy friends who had experiences they’ll miss. Maya London-Southern, 23, a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, was devastated when her campus shut down last spring.

“I know what I lost in the pandemic is not that bad,” Ms. London-Southern said. “But in school, every year you see the senior class have their moment. Friends would say, ‘Oh that sucks that you missed senior spring, you definitely have it worse than me.’ It was pouring salt on the wound and made it hard to interact.”

Upsetting as it is, one of the best ways to work with envy, during the pandemic or any other time, is not to judge yourself. The emotion, found in studies of both dogs and monkeys, likely has ancient roots.

“We’ve come from highly competitive ape packs where status in the hierarchy shaped your whole life or condemned you to early death,” said Dr. Oswald. “We are creatures of that past and it’s not sensible to think we can shake it off entirely. It’s what we do with envious feelings that matters.”

Some research suggests that envy, managed productively, is a motivator, driving us to achieve. If you’re upset a friend has a job after you were laid off, it might push you to job hunt that much more. But it’s tough to clock new accomplishments in a global pandemic. If you’re stewing in misery and can’t alter your situation in big ways, go for smaller improvements. Organize a socially distanced gathering, watch a funny movie, find volunteer work or adopt a pet.

You can also use social media proactively, to connect rather than virtually covet. Studies have shown that scrolling passively through platforms like Facebook — rather than directly connecting with friends there — can make you feel bad about yourself. For now, block friends who routinely create envy-inspiring posts.

Finally, it’s easy to assume someone you envy is happy and carefree, while discounting what’s good in your life. We frequently make an assessment, Dr. Harris of U.C. San Diego points out, without knowing another person’s struggles.

“We equate money with happiness and it’s not true. Focus on what you have. A family? People who love you? A faith? Good weather? We so often take things for granted. There are positives for almost everyone but you have to find them,” Dr. Harris said. “People flying around in private jets — they’re in the tabloids all the time! I read their expressions, how many happy marriages do you see?”

Some groups may also be better than others at resisting envy. A recent Brookings Institution study showed that African-American and Hispanic people, especially those with low incomes, remained more optimistic than their white counterparts, despite facing physical and economic challenges from the pandemic.

“We think strong cultural and community ties and a tradition of overcoming adversity are one reason these communities are resilient,” said Carol Graham, a senior fellow at Brookings. “If you’re focusing on how much better other people are doing than you, it’s pretty hard to overcome adversity.”

How we respond to others’ good fortune, then, is partially a choice. As a Manhattanite, I’ve struggled with envy surges during the pandemic (usually involving country real estate). But when I checked with friends to see if they felt similarly, some clearly thought — though they phrased it politely — I had a lot of nerve.

“No envy here. We have so many sick, it’s scary. Just trying to stay healthy and push through this,” one friend, Nancy Wolfson-Coe from Grand River, Ohio, said.

She is right. There’s much for which to be grateful. My husband and I can work from home, our daughter is 18 and independent, and we’re healthy. We’ve spent lots of close time together this summer before she leaves for college. When she was in pre-K, I learned a wise saying: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” It doesn’t apply universally; certain inequities of the pandemic should upset us all.

But for now, it helps to put the rest in perspective.