Why misery loves company (and how to avoid becoming bitter)

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Earlier this week, a woman who goes by @lilplantmami on Twitter ignited a firestorm when she tweeted about her morning routine.

Almost immediately, her feed was full of nastiness. “Don’t you guys go to work?” read one reply. Another commenter asked, “Who has time to sit and talk for hours everyday? Must be nice.” Others accused her of capitalist exploitation, suggesting that as a business owner, her leisurely mornings must be the result of abusing her workers. Others said that they’d like to check back in a few years, when presumably the couple would be miserably tolerating each other’s company rather than enjoying it. “You haven’t been married long, have you,” asked one. “You just know she’ll be divorced in five years,” said another. Still others said that it’s great that she enjoys her mornings with her husband — but it was rude and braggy of her to have shared it with the world. (Which begs the question: is it ever acceptable to share the good things in life, or only the miserable ones?)

This tweet pretty much summed it all up (and gave me a laugh in the process).

Since then, I’ve thinking about the “garden coffee lady,” as the internet has dubbed her, and what the response to her tweet means. What does it say about us as a culture that sharing a small moment of joy could elicit such meanness? Are we all so miserable that we can’t even tolerate the idea that someone else could be happy?

Misery loves company, goes the adage, and one study at least suggests that it’s true. In this study, people were given the following scenario: imagine that someone is going to lose their view of a green park from their home, and you have to tell them the news. 68% of participants believed it would less disappointing to hear that most of the other residents in the building would also lose their view, rather than just hear the news straight.

So knowing that others share your misery blunts the pain of bad news. Perhaps this is because misfortune can make us feel isolated. Going through the loss of a loved one or a breakup is the most obvious example, but other forms of loss can also make us feel lonely. Losing a job can mean an abrupt change to your rhythms or social circle. Losing money can make it hard to keep pace with your social circle (which offers a more compassionate explanation of why so many people camouflage their money troubles by going into debt rather than just downsize — it’s hard to tell your kids you can’t afford to send them to camp to see their friends this year, and moving to a cheaper home may mean changing schools and losing regular contact with friends).

Social norms around loss don’t help. As those who have lost a loved one can attest, people often react awkwardly around friends who are grieving. Afraid to say the wrong thing, many say nothing at all, leaving the impression that they don’t care. And for many who have suffered a loss, the loss feels so personal that no one else can truly understand your pain. In this context, shared misfortune cuts down on the isolation factor, meaning you don’t have loneliness compounding your grief.

But it’s one thing to be comforted by solidarity in misfortune, and quite another to wish misery on someone who is happy, in the way that commenters wished divorce and marital discord on the “garden coffee lady.” This seems to suggest that for these people, misery is actually exacerbated by others’ good fortune, and can be alleviated not by commiseration, but simply by the knowledge that misery is widespread. Does that mean that misery doesn’t just love company, but needs everyone to be miserable?

A clue can be found in the research on residents hypothetically losing their apartment views. In a subsequent study, the researchers asked participants the reverse — how happy they would be if they had no view, and suddenly discovered they were going to gain one. It turns out that people are less happy about this stroke of good luck when they discover that others will also benefit.

In other words — good fortune has a higher perceived value when it is scarce than when it is abundant.

This suggests that some people see a rather complex relationship between their happiness and that of others. Other people’s misery diminishes their misery, making it more bearable. At the same time, other people’s joy also diminishes their joy. The underlying thinking here is something like this: “More widespread misery means less that I have to carry. More widespread joy means there’s less for me.”

Seen this way, the sniping commenters that appear whenever anyone on social media has good news are operating from a scarcity mindset: the view that there’s a fixed amount of good things available in the world, and that every good thing that happens to someone else subtracts from the amount of joy available for you.

Have you ever felt that way? Maybe you don’t think about it consciously, but you’ve had days where news of a friend’s promotion leaves you feeling down about your own job. Or a friend gets a new boyfriend, and you worry there’s going to be no one left for you. Maybe you’ve been attracted by the allure of a limited edition item, feeling special knowing that you got something most people can’t have. Maybe you’ve felt triumphant on winning an exclusive spot at a university or a job that turns down most applicants. Maybe you’ve heard your partner compliment a friend, and feel diminished by comparison. Or your best friend makes a new friend, and you wonder if she loves you a little less. Maybe you’ve seen others be successful in your field, and you worry there’s no place left for you to be successful too.

(Note: if you took the Killjoys Quiz and the Green-eyed Monster came up in your results, some of these thoughts might feel especially familiar. And if you haven’t taken it yet or you don’t remember, you can take it here.)

A scarcity mindset is so pervasive in society that it almost seems to be a universal human attribute. But the reality is that scarcity is a cultural artifact, embedded in our collective psyche by the demand and supply value equation of capitalism. Under capitalism, things that are rare rise in value, while things that are abundant are worth less. (As an aside: this is why it was so easy to devastate the environment under a capitalist economic system. Natural resources seemed so abundant that they weren’t assigned any value, unless there were materials that could be extracted and sold.) Steeped in capitalist economics, our culture absorbed the idea of scarcity into every corner of life. We’re raised to believe we need to compete for jobs, awards, and mates. We hoard our resources, afraid that others will steal them or waste them. We treat our time as scarce, ever-optimizing it to extract as much productivity and value out of our days, viewing play and rest as a waste of time. We resent those who do better than us, and we pity those who are less successful, as if we’re all playing some win-lose game of life.

Not only does scarcity turn us into jealous, grasping versions of ourselves, but it has a range of other negative impacts on our lives. Scarcity places a high demand on our cognitive capacity, sucking up our attention and creating a kind of tunnel vision that influences our decision-making for the worse. Researchers Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, have demonstrated this is a primary reason why people in poverty succumb to predatory loans; not because they’re less intelligent or capable, but because their cognitive capacity is so over-taxed by their inability to afford necessities that it reduces their ability to make good decisions. One study with sugar cane farmers in Chennai showed that poverty could effectively reduce IQ by an average of 10 points.

We take scarcity as a basic fact of life, so we often don’t notice that in many places it’s manufactured. Most elite universities could accept many more students (and will readily admit they turn down thousands of applicants as qualified as the ones they accept), but because their elite status is based on their low admission rates, they choose not to. Most limited edition sneakers are mass produced. The makers could produce tens of thousands of them, but because their cachet is based on the fact that not everyone who wants one can have one, they keep the production runs small to keep the collectors lining up around the block.

We can see this especially clearly in the world of web3 and the marketplace of NFTs, which is entirely based on manufactured scarcity. The digital world is one that permits infinite replication. When I take a piece of art I make on my computer and share it as a digital file, there’s no limit to the number of people who can view and save a copy of that artwork to their own computers. As a digital art file, an NFT is no different, except that the art stands for a “token,” a bit of code that says that only I truly own that artwork, and any benefits I’m entitled to as its owner. Crypto takes digital abundance and applies a means of making it scarce so that it can have more value.

In a scarcity-based system, someone must be disappointed for someone else to be happy. One person must miss out for another to have gained. Some people must be poor in order for others to be rich. This mentality is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to remember that joy simply doesn’t work this way. Joy is not scarce. There is no natural limit on it. It is not a zero-sum game.

In fact, it may just be the reverse. After all, emotions are contagious — so contagious that they spread through social networks. When we’re joyful, we increase the chances of those around us feeling joyful as well. Spreading that joy doesn’t diminish our joy. In fact, studies show that when we share a moment of joy with someone else, it actually increases the joy we feel.

What happens when we view the world as a place of abundance, rather than scarcity? Robin Wall Kimmerer hints at the possibility when she writes in Braiding Sweetgrass about the difference between the way that settlers viewed land and the way that indigenous Americans viewed it.

In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.

The scarce view of land is inherently reductive. It reduces the land’s value to what can be extracted from it, and the destination is always depletion. (Perversely, as depletion increases, so does the value for the owners.) Contrast this with the “gift” mentality of the land’s original inhabitants. The abundance of the land was a foundation for connection, for healing, for knowledge. The idea of its abundance led to ways of using it that helped preserve its abundance, through stewardship and responsible usage.

When we view our lives through a lens of scarcity, everything becomes a commodity. Loss is terrifying. Success feels like it must be hard-fought, hustled for, taken at whatever cost. And there is always a cost, because in a scarce system, nothing is free.

When we view our lives through the lens of abundance, we live in a state of flow. Success is not taken from others, but created with others. We don’t need to hoard or take more than our share, because we know there’s enough to go around. We celebrate the triumphs of others, because more joy in the world doesn’t mean less for us. It means an increase of abundance that will eventually come to us too. And we are less fearful of loss, because we trust that there is enough joy to find us again.

There are worlds that are already like this. I’ve found this in the broader community of authors that I’ve interacted with. Before I published Joyful, I was so worried that this would be a competitive world, that writers who talk about similar topics might be protective of their turf. I was surprised to discover how embracing other authors actually were. Each new book is welcomed as a delightful new contribution to a growing abundance of ideas. Rather than seeing a new book as a threat to their sales, authors generally are excited to help promote others’ books, realizing that readers are not a scarce resource to be squabbled over, but a community to be cultivated. The goal is not to get people to read one book over another, but to get more people reading period.

The experience of an abundance-based community is healing. It helps remind you that scarcity is a filter that you can choose not to look through, and that you can view the world as abundant instead. If you don’t have a community like this, you can start building one.

One of the amazing things I’ve realized about abundance is that one person’s shift in behavior can often disrupt the whole system. Scarcity trains us to think that a generous person will be rewarded by being taken advantage of. (This is the law of supply and demand — if there’s excess supply, demand will rise to meet it until supply is exhausted.) But watch what happens when one person is truly generous with you. Doesn’t it make you want not just to pay them back, but to be generous with someone else too? Research shows this is in fact the case. For example, one study done at a Coca-Cola plant in Madrid found that when a small group of coworkers surprised their colleagues with small, joyful gestures (a cup of coffee just because, a note of encouragement before a big presentation), people witnessed ten times more prosocial gestures happening around the office. People weren’t just paying the generous folks back; they were paying it forward. Abundance feels better than scarcity, and creates its own ripples.

A pragmatist might be wondering: am I suggesting that we should all be able to have whatever we want, and that the earth’s systems can somehow support this? No, of course not. (Though it would be a lot more likely if the vast majority of the world’s wealth wasn’t hyper-concentrated in the hands of very few men.) What I am suggesting is that the scarcity mindset is itself the cause of a lot of misery, and that it diminishes joy by the implication that any joy we find must come at a cost to someone else, or to our future self. And that even though our economic system will continue to be defined by scarcity, we can choose to see the world around us through a lens of abundance. This might mean:

  • Reminding yourself that a friend’s success does not mean there is less for you, but that your friend’s success increases your chances of success by opening up new possibilities and new networks for you.
  • See through the systems that assign value based on rarity. Choose things you love because you love them, whether there’s one or thirty thousand.
  • Trusting that good fortune is not limited. You can choose to believe that a person who is a happy newlywed is not by definition going to be an unhappily married person years later, and perhaps by believing this, you might invest in your own marriage in a different way that might lead to this very outcome.
  • Boost the work of your competitors. Stop seeing them as competition and instead see them as helping to grow the audience for your work. Look for ways to collaborate.
  • Stop resenting those who are doing “better” than you and start celebrating them. Choose to believe that your success is just around the corner, rather than being taken by someone else.
  • Waste time. I know this sounds crazy, but as a new parent who has very little of it, one thing that has made my time feel more abundant is to stop treating it as if it’s running away from me, and create small pockets where I allow myself to feel aware of its abundance. (By the same token, stop saying “I’m so old,” which effectively hides another scarcity statement: “I have so little time left.” What happens when you let yourself say: “I still have so much time to what I love.”)

The shift to an abundance mindset is a refusal to comply with the myth that there isn’t enough to go around. It may feel like self-delusion in a world that is in thrall to scarcity, but the reality is that adopting an abundance mindset broadens your perspective and shifts your behavior in ways that unlock possibilities you can’t see when everything feels like a zero-sum game. It detaches you from the misery-making worldview that other people’s happiness somehow diminishes your own. And at the very least, it helps make those online comment threads a far more pleasant place to be.

If you’re looking to shed your scarcity mindset and cultivate abundance instead, join me on Nov 16 for my workshop How to Dream. We’ll be digging into how beliefs around scarcity take root, so we can release them and create space to dream up a more joyful life. Get the details and register here.

Image by Evie S. via Unsplash

October 29th, 2022

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    Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. Jeff Akamatsu on October 29, 2022

    This is perhaps the best article that has been written on abundance and scarcity mentality and the schadenfreude of relishing in another’s misery.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on October 29, 2022

      Thank you for the kind words, Jeff!! Appreciate your feedback!

      Reply
  2. Alex on October 30, 2022

    Ingrid, I applaud you. I think this is one of the best posts you’ve ever written, and I will be sharing it with everyone I know! Thank you for writing on this important topic so beautifully. 

    Reply
  3. Heather Kanost on October 30, 2022

    Hi Ingrid. Always a fan of your way of approaching life, I agree with Jeff, you really nailed so many key concepts in this gem of a summary, I congratulate you and thank you. I will share, in the hope others also can enjoy your reflection.

    Reply
  4. Karen on October 30, 2022

    Wow. Just WOW!
    Thank you for sharing this perspective, Ingrid. It is perhaps the best summation I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I’ll definitely share this with my three young adult children and others as they venture forth. 
    At 59 I have found myself thinking about aging, this article reminds me to view aging differently. 
    Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Hannah on October 30, 2022

    THIS❤️ What an amazing article full of wisdom. It’s pretty crazy to realize how much your culture influences you and everyone around you without being conscious of it. Thank you for taking the time to write something so meaningful and important. 

    Reply
  6. Heather on October 30, 2022

    Ditto what Jeff said. I can’t imagine the hours it took to put this together. Thank you! Twenty five or so years ago, I was in a large meeting that started with an ice breaker game. Groan! But it was one of the best experiences and has stayed with me all this time. I Googled to see if I could find it and couldn’t. If anyone had played the game before they were asked to not play (so big spoiler coming). The attendees were divided into teams, each representing a fictionalized country with a flag and other identifiers. Each country had monetary, natural, food, and other resources (some in abundance, some just a few) with different game pieces for each that could be traded and counted. Each country had zero of one or more resources. Due to ‘treaties’ some countries could interact with each other, some couldn’t at all, some only through another country. Each country had a list of resources and the amounts they needed by the end of the game. During three timed sessions teams interacted (according to the ‘treaty’ rules) to negotiate and trade in order to obtain the number of resources listed on their card, reporting progress (or lack of) at the end of the first two sessions. The game ended after the third session. The first team to get all the resources they needed won. No one had met their resource goals at the end of the first two sessions. Time was being counted down at the end of the third session, everyone frantically bargaining when an enlightened, think-outside-the-box player yelled out, “Everyone, throw all your resource pieces on the ground and then just take what you need.” Of course, there were exactly enough resource game pieces for each team to meet their goals.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on October 30, 2022

      Wow, what an intriguing experiment! I love this game. Thanks for sharing it!

      Reply
  7. Errol on November 2, 2022

    Thank you for this. I work at a feminist bookstore and one of our values is to practice an anti-scarcity mindset. It is a deeply held value, yet it can still be so challenging to embody in the book industry where there is so much talk of scarcity (and a lot of reality of some genuine economic constraints). Your article reminds me why it is still such an important practice to cheer on our fellow booksellers when they have a successful event with an author we love. If others succeed that’s good for the world of books and ideas and that is a net win.
    Your words here are a much needed reminder and balm in a hard week.

    Reply

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