Envy is a double-edged sword. How many times and from how many people do you hear the words: “I’d love to have that (enviable item), but without the (sacrifice)”. Seriously, I am of the team that believes there is no such thing as a free lunch over the long term. But the balance is: how much harder do we have to work, or how much sacrifice is enough before we get our ‘reward’? At what point are we willing to trade-up? Here is an article that discusses what you might do if your envy is starting to swallow you up…
The benefits of envy
Psychologies | Self
“ Does another person’s success or good fortune sometimes leave you yearning for more – a bigger house, better career or more interesting life? Envy, far from being a bad thing, can provide valuable clues about our heart’s true desires.
Someone once told me that a good way of finding out what you really want from your life is to imagine you have unlimited funds and can do anything (or nothing). In those moments when I am wishing I were a successful entrepreneur, or a bestselling novelist, or even a stay-at-home mother, I play this game and the results are always pleasantly surprising. What I discover is that although more money would be undeniably helpful, it wouldn’t radically change what I am doing right now.
This kind of exercise is useful because it fights off the phenomenon of life comparison or grass-is-greener syndrome, which seems to be flourishing like never before. Yes, envy is one of the seven deadly sins, but with the advent of social networking, reality TV and 24/7 media, other people’s lives are beamed into our realities in high-definition detail and it’s hard not to think, ‘If only I had that car, that designer kitchen, the beach house in Ibiza, then my life would be complete.’
Keeping up with the Joneses is hardly a new phenomenon, but an increasingly competitive and consumerist culture seems to be stoking the fires of status anxiety in modern society. Dr Cecilia d’Felice, psychologist and author of 21 Days To A New You (Orion), points out that social media and TV exacerbate the problem by allowing bystanders to view only the highlights of other people’s lives. ‘The mundane aspects of their existence – taking the rubbish out, doing the washing up – are screened out,’ she says. ‘This can make people feel inadequate. I see clients who are no longer inviting people into their homes because they can’t recreate what they see on TV.’
If grass-is-greener syndrome goes on for too long, the result is permanent anxiety, says d’Felice. ‘People say, “Why can’t I have all that?” Problems become externalized and people forget to look inside themselves and rely on inner resources.’
Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and social commentator, has often touched on this subject in his books, talks and debates. He sees the death of distance as driving this problem. ‘I was brought up in a working-class culture with its own way of doing things,’ he says. ‘We didn’t have TV. Yes, there was a sense of another world, but different social groups didn’t really mix. We were embedded in our communities much more. Now we are all mixed together so perhaps it’s not surprising that poor kids aspire to own the latest designer shoes. That awareness of what others have adds a new energy to a basic human drive.’
A double-sided emotion
The dark side of this is schadenfreude – being happy when others fail. Richard Smith, professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, has pioneered research in this area. ‘Schadenfraude isn’t the same as envy, but envy puts you in the mind-set to have it,’ he says. ‘You see it a lot in tabloid magazines that focus on celebrities and powerful people getting into trouble or being caught out looking awful, while at the same time including stories of low-status underdogs doing well to make us feel better.’
Yet, despite this, comparing yourself to others and wishing you had their lives or possessions isn’t always bad. In fact, it can be a powerful and positive tool for change. Smith draws a distinction between benign and malicious envy. Benign is when, for example, you wish you were going to Hawaii like your friend is doing. You’re not wishing them ill because they are going – in fact, you are acknowledging the value of their experience. You may feel a bit pained but their trip could motivate you to work out how you might be able to go on an exotic holiday too.
Malicious envy is more about seeing the other person’s advantage as unfair. The motivation then becomes less about improving the self than pulling the other person down. Smith says the key is to catch your envy early before it descends into the destructive type, as it is an emotion ‘that transmutes over time’. And as d’Felice says, ‘All emotion demands action. If you don’t do something about it, then you get eaten up by it’.
Benign envy can prompt people to work harder to improve themselves but it needs to feel a bit unpleasant in order to be effective. ‘You need some kind of jolt, or bite to the unflattering comparison, otherwise it’s not going to motivate you,’ says Smith. And healthy competition, not at the expense of others, is often the bedrock of doing well.
Compare and conquer
As well as being a helpful motivational tool, life comparison can also be more profound – the means by which you can work out what matters to you and who you really are. ‘We need to take a good hard look inside ourselves,’ says d’Felice. ‘What is that bigger car about for you? Do you not value yourself unless you have material things? And if so, how can you improve that feeling of not being worthwhile? Maybe you need more genuine friendship, to be more engaged with your local community. Don’t be afraid of the emotion – unpack it and work out where it comes from. A friend or therapist can help with this. Once you go on that journey, the difference between needs and wants becomes very important.’
Sue Gerhardt, author of The Selfish Society (Simon & Schuster), agrees, ‘Envy can be quite useful as a pointer that tells you something about what you value,’ she says. ‘I used to get a twinge of envy when someone brought out a book I admired. But I felt a lot better when I started writing myself. Taking action often involves making difficult choices – for example, I had to lower my income to become a writer. Most ambitions involve some sacrifice – maybe you want to move to the country but you will have to cope with the isolation. Envy is a bit of a passive state. Really living your life does mean you have to face your own limitations – sometimes, however hard you try, what you want isn’t going to happen.’
Here, acceptance becomes important, something that can be aided by practices such as mindfulness, which focuses on appreciating what you have in the here and now with all its imperfections. ‘I now live in a smaller house than I have ever lived in,’ says Gerhardt, ‘in a fairly tatty part of town, but I’m not thinking about all the bigger, more expensive houses I wish I could have – instead, I’m very aware that my cottage is more spacious than many around here, and I have a great view, which not many people have. When I do compare myself to others, I tend to compare downwards rather than upwards, which I’ve discovered is a much better way to feel good.’
And if people are comparing themselves to the very rich, it is helpful to remember that those who have spent time thinking about the human condition say money doesn’t make you happy.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan has written a lot about these issues. In her novel Look At Me (Corsir), the main character pursues fame, which she visualizes as a mirrored room. ‘I discovered through writing this book that it is delusional to think you will be happier if you are famous,’ she says. ‘One of the characters is looking for a life that feels the same way inside as the way those constructs of fame look from the outside. Of course, what she discovers when she gets to the room of fame is that it’s empty.’
We are all searching for fulfilment, for a more perfect version of the reality we live in. The trick is working out what that reality looks like for each of us, so we can pursue it – as well as waking up and smelling the roses in our lives right now.”
The map of envy: an exercise
Envy is a map; it can reveal exactly where in your life you are failing to take creative risks. This exercise may help you to move forward.
· Write down the names of every person you are envious of.
· Next to each name, write why. Be as specific as and accurate as you can.
· Then, next to each name and reason, list one action you can take to move out of envy and towards creativity.
Adapted from ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron (Pan)