Trapped in Vanity and Greed: How Our Zero-Sum Thinking Makes Us Miserable

Let the Competition Begin

6th century philosopher, Boethius, noted that life is a wheel of fortune. Sometimes, we’re up, and sometimes, we’re down; the only constant is change. Yet, we desperately hold onto qualities that fade quicker than others. In our culture, and my birth culture in particular, appearance and wealth define the individuals therein as much of our lives are spent acquiring, maintaining, and acquiring some more. All of this despite the fact that all of it is so transient.

When you’re young, it’s easy to view your world as an infinite well of possibilities, with all of your desires out in front, just waiting for your call. You value looks and status, and seek to carve-out your own place in the cosmos. From a developmental perspective, this is normal; I’m sure most of you can recall how vain you were throughout your teenaged years. But, some of us become stuck in that developmental phase, remaining teenagers long after high school ends. And this state can be widespread throughout one’s culture.

Of all of the clients I see, the most unhappy are the ones who obsess over their looks and place in the social food-chain. You may wonder how that can be when they, seemingly, have so much. But, when you have so much, it can easily be lost. So, they notice every new wrinkle, every greying hair, every financial loss, and even the smallest semblance of rejection. Where life once seemed as a perpetual upward climb, it now embodies a terrifyingly steep decline. Since the aging process is inevitable, one would think that it would become more acceptable through time. But, so many of us still continue to resist it.

Most of our struggles with vanity and greed are cultural. When you’re reared in a shallow and materialistic environment, it’s fairly difficult to become the odd one out and ask deeper questions about life’s purpose. Because we’re social creatures, it’s natural for us to conform to social norms without ever questioning why they’re there and whether they make us happy.

So, as a collective, we do a hell of a job at providing our children with the foundations of their misery, and then lament their dysfunctional emotional states. So why should we maintain them? Who or what states that most of life ought to remain in a state of boundless competition?

Is Life a Zero-Sum Game?

In essence, obsessive competitiveness stems from zero-sum thinking, which is an inherent cognitive bias/distortion that causes us to believe that some situation entails one’s gain and another’s loss when it doesn’t. An example of zero-sum thinking is when we’re rejected by a potential mate and then believe that there isn’t anyone else out there for us. Although this distortion is likely a remnant from our ancestors due to evolution, we passively sustain it through the lack of introspection.

As with each of the other cognitive biases and distortions, our tendency to engage in zero-sum thinking doesn’t necessarily make it inevitable. Just as we learn to challenge the other biases, we can learn to overcome this one. In some respects, this thinking-style can make sense and doesn’t qualify as a distortion; the problem lies in over-generalizatizing it. Losing out on a particular mate is, in itself, a zero-sum scenario; losing our on every potential mate isn’t. Life is a competition, but not to the extent that we think it is.

One of the biggest myths of romantic love is that you can only be in love with one person. So, when someone cheats, or falls in love with another, the partner who’s cheated on feels betrayed, believing that he or she has lost the great love of their life. But reality is more complex. It’s actually possible to be in love with multiple people at once, without losing one’s affection for either individual. We can also be attracted to various people just like we tend to want multiple friendships.

All of this doesn’t mean that I advocate for polyamory; it simply means that it’s possible. Additionally, and most significantly, it means that we don’t always lose when someone else wins, and that loses don’t always indicate that we’re unworthy or unlovable. Sometimes, we’re rejected because of fear or envy, and sometimes, we aren’t good enough to one person but spectacular to another.

Losses aren’t always what they seem to be.

Why Are These Our Values?

When life is viewed as a zero-sum game, entire cultures can fall into greed and vanity. If competition predominates, then we’re inevitably going to become a bunch of narcissists. Our thinking is a strong foundation for our behaviors, but again, we can always change it.

Thus, even though we inherently value beauty and status, we can choose their place in our personal and cultural hierarchies, for value can always be re-defined because it doesn’t exist objectively outside of our minds; we are its progenitors.

And if we’re going to survive, and even thrive, we have to fix our thinking. If the world were such that beauty, status, and wealth were static, then this article would be useless. But, they aren’t. As we allow ourselves to spin on Boethius’ wheel of fortune, life finds a way to constantly knock us off. And the people who struggle the most are the ones who can’t seem to re-define themselves, forever lost in remember when, trying desperately to regain their glory.

Normally, as we age, our focus tends to shift outwardly; our deeds become our main priority. Healthy development encompasses this change, providing us with a sense of symbolic immortality. Rather than fruitlessly attempting to turn back the clock, we can allow ourselves to harmonize with its linear flow. Happiness, if it can be defined, is the appreciation of what one has when she has it, and the active development of other qualities when its lost; happiness is adaptation to life’s relentless flow.

So, as we devalue looks and money, we can prioritize community, which epitomizes joy. While enjoying success isn’t a bad thing in itself, it becomes so when obsession is transformed into despair. Sadness is having nothing more to offer than your beauty or your wealth; it’s only being valuable for your outer shell. For what’s left when time’s hand is raised in victory? Nothing… just a hallow inner-core.

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