Social Media is Toxic, But This Philosophy Trick Changes Things
11 min read

Social Media is Toxic, But This Philosophy Trick Changes Things

Social Media is Toxic, But This Philosophy Trick Changes Things

“It’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy…” — Alain De Botton

Social Media is Toxic Because It Makes Us Envious

Envy has a bad reputation, and for good reason.

In nearly every Disney film, the villain’s evil motives are fuelled by envy.

Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, you name it — they all have evil, envious villains.

If prompted to think of an envious person, most would think of witches akin to Disney’s – haggard old crones, bitter at the sight of youngsters having fun.

Perhaps there’s some validity to this stereotype. Jean-Louis Théodore Géricault even had this image in mind when he started a painting entitled ‘Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy’ 200 years ago.

Gerricault's Painting of 'A Woman Suffering From Obsessive Envy'

Who is the fairest of them all?

But if we’re going to give any validity to a cliche, it best be the old one ‘don’t believe everything you hear’ because the inaccuracy of social stereotypes has caused a lot of confusion over the years…

Dumb people wear glasses, slim people eat junk food, and sometimes not just the old bitter crones experience envy.

Not Just Witches And Villains Experience Social Media Envy

Everyone experiences envy.

Old bitter witches, yes, but also children, teenagers, men, women, and sweet little old ladies.

But envy is an invisible affliction. Most of us don’t recognise it when it occurs, and those who do,  quickly brush it under the carpet for fear of being likened to the portrait above.

Language is a fairly recent invention on the evolutionary timeline, emotions are not. And, as a result, we tend to feel first and explain later.

We are very good at providing logical motives for our actions, logical excuses for our inactions and logical justifications for our unjust behavior.

This is called rationalization. And rationalization applies as much to envy as any other emotion.

We rationalize that the negative emotion we are feeling cannot be envy, because if it were then that would mean there is something or someone to be envious of — someone who in comparison we feel less than.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you really dislike that guy at the party because he was obnoxious or because he was funnier than you?
  • Did you really dislike that girl’s profile pic because she’s stuck up, or because she’s getting more attention than you?
  • The truth is, most of the people you don’t like have an aspect of their life or character, you wish you had yourself.

Everyone experiences envy. Even you.

How’s that for a status?

But not all toxic social media envy is created equal.

There are two types:

The first type psychologists label ‘malicious envy’. It was this type philosopher Bertrand Russell was referring to when he said “Envy was the most potent cause of unhappiness,” in humans.

The second type, ‘benign envy’, the one we want, was what Russell believed was the “Driving force behind the movement towards democracy.”

The best-selling author of Status Anxiety, philosopher Alain de Botton, also believes that malicious envy causes us terrible anxiety and sleepless nights and, for this reason, urges us “never to go to a school reunion because you’ll get envious and depressed.”

But akin to Russell, De Botton agrees that the benign type has the potential to clarify our muddled ambitions and give us the motivational drive necessary to fulfil them.

That’s what this post is all about.

Why Is Social Media Toxic?

“Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a small part of me dies” — Gore Vidal

Wikipedia Definition:

noun: envy; plural noun: envies

Envy (from Latin invidia) is a resentment which “occurs when someone lacks another’s quality, achievement or possession and wishes that the other lacked it.”

One of the best depictions of envy in action occurs in the film ‘Amadeus (1984) by director Milos Foreman. Based on a true story, the film shows the one-sided rivalry between composers Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

The following scene shows F. Murray Abraham, the actor playing Salieri, and his Oscar-winning portrayal of a man consumed with envy. Salieri works hard on a piece of music hoping to show off his talent to Mozart upon meeting him for the first time.

Everyone has felt like Salieri in this clip at some point in their life.

If you say you haven’t you’re lying, if you believe you haven’t you’re lying to yourself.

Does Salieri think he’s envious or merely annoyed at Mozart’s rudeness?

Envy, however, doesn’t stem from loss, but from the annoyance at another’s gain and success relative to your own. If two single friends are out at a bar, the one going home alone will feel envious of the other.

Envy also works in reverse. That is, to feel delight in another’s misfortune. When Mozart is playing harpsichord for the emperor, I’m sure Salieri would love nothing more than for Mozart to mess it up and look a fool.

This is where envy has gotten its bad reputation (and rightly so).

‘Schadenfreude’ is the German term used to specify this form of malicious envy. The literal English translation is ‘harm-joy’, and we all know a few harm-joyers.

Whenever you hear someone gossip with glee about the misfortune of others or wonder why all popular soap operas seem to depict such miserable characters, know that Schadenfreude is at work.

 Schadenfreude Cartoon

The book, The Joy of Pain by Prof. Richard H. Smith is an amazing read on this dark side of human nature.

The first step in taking the wind out of Schadenfreude’s sail, De Botton explains, is simply recognising its existence:

Envy becomes noxious and truly destructive when we become unaware we are feeling it. An un-self-aware person envious of another’s love life will start to make long, abstract speeches about how romantic love is an illusion. A financially envious person will develop conspiracy theories about Wall Street all this rather than frankly saying, ‘I’d love a partner’ or ‘How can I make more money too?’ Such envy is depressing because it springs from feelings of inadequacy that aren’t owned up to.

How Does Toxic Social Media Envy Work?

We don’t just envy anybody. For us to envy someone they must follow a certain criterion: they must be relatable. De Botton in his TED talk on success goes further:

I think it would be very unusual for anyone here to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she’s much richer than any of you are and has a very large house. The reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. We can’t relate to her, she speaks in a funny way, she comes from an odd place. We can’t relate to her. And when you can’t relate to somebody you don’t envy them. The closer two people are in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy…

The term psychologists use to explain the phenomenon De Botton talks about is ‘social relativity’ or ‘relative position’. In the same way we only recognise when it’s night by its contrast with the light of day, we can only recognise our status in the world by contrasting it with the status of other people in our own demographic.

If you’ve ever wondered why very attractive women can be insecure about their looks, it is because they are only comparing themselves to other very attractive women.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis gives an excellent thought experiment to demonstrate social relativity and how it relates to envy. Here it is:

Which job would you rather have: one in which you earned $90,000 a year and your coworkers earned on average $70,000, or one in which you earned $100,000 a year but your coworkers earned on average $150,000? Many people would choose the first job, thereby revealing that relative position is worth at least $10,000 to them.

So everyone feels envy, but not under every circumstance. We only envy people who have achieved what we believe ourselves capable of achieving… but haven’t. This is good. The ambitions envy highlights within us are usually within reach. De Botton goes on:

The real problem with envy is not feeling it, but what you do with it. Envy is a highly beneficial emotion in so far as it goads us towards things we are capable of getting.

Now you should have quite a good understanding of what envy is and how it works. Let’s learn how to make it goad us to greatness.

Yes, Social Media Is Toxic, But Alain de Botton Has a 4-Step Strategy That Changes Things

“We should keep a careful diary of our moments of envy — and use them as covert guides to what we should try to do next.” — Alain De Botton

I first heard about the envy diary concept in Alain de Botton’s internet speech entitled ‘Reintroducing Wisdom in Everyday Life’. Like many self-help techniques such as ‘writing down your goals’ or ‘keeping a gratitude journal’ my initial response was “yeah sounds like a good idea, I’ll just think about it, actually writing it down seems a bit too tedious.”

This is De Botton’s antidote to envy:

The Envy Diary Technique:
Whenever you feel envy:

  1. Acknowledge it.
  2. Write down the cause.
  3. Repeat.
  4. Look for a pattern.

A few weeks after I listened to De Botton’s speech I was sat at home one night browsing Facebook when I became struck by an envy bolt to the gut, followed by all of the symptoms: self-doubt, self-loathing, regret, anxiety, and our good pal schadenfreude.

While feeling these emotions, I suddenly remembered the envy diary. I grabbed a scrap piece of paper, a pencil and wrote down the cause of my envy. That same week I felt envy twice more to varying degrees and wrote these down too. A pattern emerged.

Here is my actual envy diary:

Jon Brooks's Envy Diary

My actual envy diary

If you can’t understand my handwriting, I wrote:

Seeing someone get acclaim for a {film/film/art}, knowing I could have done better.”

Egotistical? Delusional? Possibly. Who cares? You don’t have to publish yours on the internet.

I now had a plan and fire in my belly. I immediately made a YouTube channel and created a short film. I worked on it for weeks, my goal was to make it the best of its kind… ever.

Within the first 48 hours, it generated 12,000 views. But that was just the start…

How Social Media Envy Helps Us Succeed


Envy: a confused, tangled guide to one’s own ambitions. — Alain De Botton

We are drawing up our bucket lists at younger ages than ever before. Everywhere you look there’s some article or book listing all the places you need to visit, books you need to read, and films you must see ‘before you die’.

Having an amazing body, a perfect family, a successful business and living the Four Hour Workweek, for the first time in human history, is actually doable.

But this striving to do absolutely everything often makes us spread our time and attention too thinly and too equally across ventures of unequal actual importance. Our ambitions get diluted like a homoeopathic remedy to the extent where all that remains is water.

Here’s some wisdom from De Botton that’s worth remembering the next time your to-do list gets too long:

Here’s some insight I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t. Any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. Any wise life will accept that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.

When we see our repeated entries in the envy diary, we start to realise what we are really ambitious about. We discover, or recover, what Robert Greene calls in his seminal book Mastery – our life’s task. Our Purpose. What we were born to do.

No longer do we spread our attention equally over trivial ‘things to do before we die’. Our envy diary helps us find the things worth dying for.


Motivation usually comes in waves. We’ve all had the experience of having that intense desire to do or create something regardless of the reward. Sometimes it lasts for a night, sometimes a few days, but very rarely longer. In my experience, if you find yourself on a motivational wave, surf the hell out of it. It’s a gift.

The downside to these motivational waves is that waves, by definition, are transient in nature. Accomplishing anything of real merit requires a meta level of motivation, that is — a motivation to work when not feeling motivated.

This is where envy comes in. Envy doesn’t give you a wave of motivation, it gives you a sea. For as long as your life is not perfect, envy will have your back.

If you look through history books, you’ll notice that there are epochs of great people in their field popping up at around the same time. Great rivalry is often a catalyst for great work.

Think of the Italian Renaissance with Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Botticelli; The Silicon Valley Misfits Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; The Golden Era Of Boxing with Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman or the California Movie Brats Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

All in contact with one another, in the same place, at the same time. All rivals.

There are lots of technological and cultural reasons that opened up previously inaccessible opportunities for the aforementioned icons, but it is almost certain that the basal emotion of envy had a part to play in making them seize these opportunities with inexorable determination.

[on seeing The Godfather(1972) for the first time] “I felt that I should quit, that there was no reason to continue directing because I would never reach that level of confidence.” — Steven Spielberg

If you do feel crushing envy from a rival or peer and you’re unconscious, you may channel your emotions into hatred or a malicious attack. This is what Salieri did to Mozart and this is why Salieri will never be remembered for his work.

Instead, use your envy as fuel for your creative fire, like Spielberg, and keep the following words of De Botton in mind:

It is only right, indeed healthy, for anyone starting out in business or art to envy more successful entrepreneurs and artists; to pour over their success and feel crushed by a sense of inadequacy by comparison. How else could one ever have the energy to achieve?

Just from reading this article you should now be much more aware of what envy is, how it affects you and how you can use it to elevate your position in life.

And if you use it do elevate your position in life don’t be shy about it…

I’ll leave you with some final wisdom from Alain de Botton:

We are in danger of missing out on something valuable when we simply label envy a sin. Like many of our drives, it has positive and negative components, which need to be balanced and managed rather than simply cut out like a cancer. We might respect envy as the first step, painful but inevitable, towards generating something we can be proud of something that will make others envious…

Have you ever used a negative emotion to accomplish anything?

Share your experience in the comments. Hopefully we can all learn something.

Resources on Toxic Social Media Envy:


Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton

Alain De Botton Article on Envy


Alain De Botton Talk: Wisdom In Everyday Life

Alain De Botton TED Talk On Success

Oliver James on Envy