I recently had a situation, I won’t get into the specifics, where I was pretty jealous of a very close friend. The jealousy made me feel as though a particular aspect of my life wasn’t good enough, even though I am in a pretty good position and really shouldn’t be complaining about that particular aspect of my life. I recognized this jealousy in myself, acknowledged it was there, and then tried to understand that this jealousy is a result of being a social creature with evolved tendencies and instincts, and that this jealousy is an emotion that could have helped serve me well if I still lived in the context of my human ancestors where this trait originally evolved.
My experience is something that we cannot escape as humans. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “emotions are internal regulators that ensure that people reap the benefits of social life – reciprocal exchange and cooperative action – without suffering the costs, namely exploitation by cheaters and social parasites.” All of our emotions are complex, interdependent, and tied to the complex social webs and societies that we are a part of. Any given emotion, like the jealousy I felt, is tied to much more than a single thing, such as a singular desire. Caught up in any given emotion are aspects of fairness, deservedness, value and self-worth, contribution, rewards, incentives, social status, and more. This is all part of living social lives as social creatures.
Within this complex dynamic we do all kinds of weird things. We respond to competing incentives, disincentives, rewards, and punishments in ways that we don’t always acknowledge or understand. We downplay our own cheating, unfair rewards, and head starts. We overplay our level of virtue and hard work. Pinker continues, “a person’s own level of virtue is a tradeoff between the esteem that comes from cultivating a reputation as a cooperator and the ill-gotten gains of stealthy cheating.”
Our emotions are tied up in all of this. Feeling good about ourselves, feeling depressed, feeling jealousy, and anything else we might feel is all related to our position in society, whether we feel we are getting a fair deal or not, and how we think others perceive us. In this context, a helpful way to deal with our emotions is to remember that they are evolved in order to help us try to navigate this complex system. Recognizing an emotion, trying to understand why we might be feeling that emotion in an objective way, and not beating ourselves up (or overly praising ourselves) for having a given emotion is the best way to handle ourselves and our situations. We are complex social creatures, and even a simple emotion can have far more complex strings attached to it than we can always realize and understand.