Committed to a Little Lady Named Envy

Paris Hilton looks flawless, even in that tacky, wrestler-inspired, jewel encrusted one-piece bathing suit she wears in her now infamous Carl's Jr. commercial. As she sponges herself and her Bentley, she takes a juicy bite of a burger. One assumes that because she is Paris, she is immune to the burger's caloric content.

Thinness and wealth aren't all she has; Paris is engaged to marry another impossibly rich kid, also named Paris. She's published a book, her dog has published a book (no joke), her mother has a reality show, and her pores are really small.

What does this have to do with me? Absolutely nothing, but I'll get to that.

First, let's pause for a moment to consider the psychotically happy carnival of infatuation that is Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, now known simply as "TomKat." He is so in love with her, he can't even sit still on Oprah's couch. The love makes him leap up and pump his fist. It makes him drop down and take a knee. It makes her mouth the words, "I love you, Tom" as if she's letting us into their secret world, the only place true love exists, where superbly attractive people fly above us in their private jets feeding each other sushi. This is a love so sublime that only the Eiffel Tower would do as a backdrop for Cruise's recent proposal.

Just knowing that this kind of love is possible should make us all thrilled for the couple. But it doesn't.

Why? Here is my theory. You've heard of schadenfreude, defined as "a malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others." Allow me to introduce "reverse schadenfreude," which could be described as "dissatisfaction in the fortunes of others."

That's right, maybe I'm a bad person with a frayed spiritual core, but I know I'm not the only one. Admit it, sometimes other people's happiness makes you sad. While I believe the feeling is human and universal, Los Angeles may be the epicenter of this uncomfortable emotional experience.

I don't know Paris or Tom or Katie. They have nothing to do with my life, but that's no excuse not to let their ubiquitous joy and bounty make me momentarily, though acutely, aware of all that I lack. For example, the only way I would get paid to sponge a Bentley is if I volunteered at a charity car wash and P. Diddy drove through. The fact that my boyfriend doesn't sputter, "She's amazing, she's amazing, she's amazing," when he so much as thinks of me makes me wonder if Katie Holmes is more adored than I will ever be. Maybe I'll meet someone special over at the Church of Schadentology.

This mechanism is perhaps most painful not when it deals with celebrities, who we can mock openly and communally, thus blunting the pain of their joy, but with friends and acquaintances. You don't have to live in L.A. long before you're watching TV only to see the guy who signed you up for your gym membership starring in a new crime drama. You will be calculating his residuals in your head while angrily digging into a bag of corn nuts. A friend will call to tell you she just sold her first screenplay for a million dollars. You will see a woman who was once in your acting class talking to Charlie Rose, discussing her bestseller. An intern who once opened your mail will be closing deals.

Reverse schadenfreude hits hard but fades fast. It's based on the notion that there are only so many goodies to go around, that when we get to the candy dish it will be empty. Of course, this is irrational, which is why it doesn't stick, but it's real, which is why you know what I mean.

And this is where Paris comes in, because you can hate her and not hate yourself. You can pillory her in any bar or waiting room in this town and no one will find you petty or emotionally bankrupt. Paris is someone we never have to find it in our hearts to celebrate.

And that's hot.