Last summer, an old college friend had his first child. I know this because a photo of an adorable baby boy popped up on my Facebook news feed, 320 likes signaling that this is important! All the likes buoyed it to the top of the stream, ensuring that far and wide, my friend’s friends saw the baby picture.
A few days after that, the same friend posted another baby photo. This time three large zucchinis surrounded his swaddled son: an orange baby with his green older brothers. It was like a postmodern Anne Geddes shot. The baby’s expression was a sweet mix of obliviousness and bewilderment.
Along with the photo came an ominous caption. “Fair warning and full disclosure,” my friend announced. “My social media feed is about to go 95 percent babies and vegetables.”
I appreciated my friend’s candor. It made my decision a lot easier. With only a small pang of regret, I looked at his beloved face on my timeline. I looked at his baby, surrounded by zucchini. I looked at the unfollow button.
Let he who has never secretly forsworn a friend to escape his infant-with-vegetable pics cast the first zucchini.
It’s not that I don’t like infants (or vegetables). Quite the opposite; I very much would like some of my own. And that is the problem. When I saw my old friend’s baby, I was truly happy for him—and, almost simultaneously, extremely and viscerally jealous.
Study after study links Facebook use to depression, as you compare your life achievements with those of friends and frenemies. Just look at the names of the papers: “ ‘They are happier and having better lives than I am.’ ” “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to User’s Life Satisfaction?” “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults.” “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms.”
The heaviest users of Facebook believe that other people are happier. News feeds contain numerous “envy-inducing incidents,” and the more you skim, the more you compare yourself to others, leading to “invidious emotions.” Looking at your friends’ babies and vegetables might seem like a good idea at the time, but all those Anne Geddes shots will probably just make you sad.
But “sad” isn’t nearly a nuanced enough word for the confusing concoction of emotions at play. It’s sadness borne of envy—because your friend has what you want. Even acknowledging such envy can make you sadder, because you realize that underneath the jealousy, you really are genuinely happy for your friend. And there’s self-disappointment in the mix: You should be able to rise above your own jealousy, right? Aren’t you a good friend?
Facebook usage is increasing at a ridiculously fast rate. It’s only logical that the associated social-media-inspired feelings will continue apace. So we need a word that combines all of these emotions: elation at our friends’ life achievements, extreme envy, and just a dash of shame.
This word doesn’t appear to exist in the English language, and a quick survey of world languages didn’t uncover it. The feeling turns “schadenfreude” on its head: Instead of happiness over others’ misfortune, it is closer to sadness over others’ success. I’m not a fan of clumsily flipping “schadenfreude” around and calling it freudenschade—although many have had this idea before. Perhaps if we made it freundenschade, layering in the German word for “friend”?
A close pal, upon being informed of the topic of this post, had an immediate, great suggestion: “frenvy.” But it turns out that someone else on the Internet already came up with that word. (I was relieved, as I’d loved the term immediately, and was a little bit jealous—frenvious?—that he, not I, had dreamt it up.)
A wonderful word from Sanskrit and Pali, mudita, denotes the unselfish joy that arises from seeing the good fortune of others. It’s the purely positive and selfless counterpart of the happy-jealous mixture I’m describing here. Mudita is an important principle of Buddhism, which led me to wonder what Buddha would have made of Facebook, if he in fact has an account, and whether I should avoid friending him on the off-chance that I would grow to resent (but just ever so slightly!) his deep and abiding wisdom.