Beyond Envy

Like most humans, you will tend to deny that you ever experience envy, at least strong enough to act on. You are simply not being honest with yourself. As described above, you are only conscious of the indignation or resentment you feel that covers up the initial pangs of envy. You need to overcome the natural resistance to seeing the emotion as it first stirs within you.

We all compare ourselves with others; we all feel unsettled by those who are superior in some area that we esteem; and we all react to this by feeling some form of envy. (It is wired into our nature; studies have shown that monkeys feel envy.) You can begin with a simple experiment: next time you hear or read about the sudden success of someone in your field, notice the inevitable feeling of wanting the same (the pang) and the subsequent hostility, however vague, toward the person you envy. It happens quickly and you can easily miss the transition, but try to catch it. It is natural to go through this emotional sequence and there should be no guilt attached. Monitoring yourself and seeing more such instances will only help you in the slow process of moving beyond envy.

Let us be realistic, however, and realize that it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of the compulsion to compare ourselves with others. It is too ingrained in our nature as a social animal. Instead, what we must aspire to is to slowly transform our comparing inclination into something positive, productive, and prosocial. The following are five simple exercises to help you in achieving this.

Move closer to what you envy. Envy thrives on relative closeness—in a corporate environment where people see each other every day, in a family, in a neighborhood, in any group of peers. But people tend to hide their problems and to put their best face forward. We only see and hear of their triumphs, their new relationships, their brilliant ideas that will land them a gold mine. If we moved closer—if we saw the quarrels that go on behind closed doors or the horrible boss that goes with that new job—we would have less reason to feel envy. Nothing is ever so perfect as it seems, and often we would see that we are mistaken if we only looked closely enough. Spend time with that family you envy and wish you had as your own, and you will begin to reassess your opinion.

If you envy people with greater fame and attention, remind yourself that with such attention comes a lot of hostility and scrutiny that is quite painful. Wealthy people are often miserable. Read any account of the last ten years of the life of Aristotle Onassis (1906–1975), one of the wealthiest men in history, married to the glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy, and you will see that his wealth brought him endless nightmares, including the most spoiled and unloving of children.

The process of moving closer is twofold: on the one hand, try to actually look behind the glittering façades people present, and on the other hand, simply imagine the inevitable disadvantages that go along with their position. This is not the same as leveling them down. You are not diminishing the achievements of those who are great. You are mitigating the envy you might feel for things in people’s personal lives.

Engage in downward comparisons. You normally focus on those who seem to have more than you, but it would be wiser to look at those who have less. There are always plenty of people to use for such a comparison. They live in harsher environments, deal with more threats to their lives, and have deeper levels of insecurity about the future. You can even look at friends who have it much worse than you. This should stimulate not only empathy for the many who have less but also greater gratitude for what you actually possess. Such gratitude is the best antidote to envy.

As a related exercise, you can write up all the positive things in your life that you tend to take for granted—the people who have been kind and helpful to you, the health that you presently enjoy. Gratitude is a muscle that requires exercise or it will atrophy

Practice Mitfreude. Schadenfreude, the experience of pleasure in the pain of other people, is distinctly related to envy, as several studies have demonstrated. When we envy someone, we are prone to feel excitement, even joy, if they experience a setback or suffer in some way. But it would be wise to practice instead the opposite, what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Mitfreude—“joying with.” As he wrote, “The serpent that stings us means to hurt us and rejoices as it does so; the lowest animal can imagine the pain of others. But to imagine the joy of others and to rejoice at it is the highest privilege of the highest animals.”

This means that instead of merely congratulating people on their good fortune, something easy to do and easily forgotten, you must instead actively try to feel their joy, as a form of empathy. This can be somewhat unnatural, as our first tendency is to feel a pang of envy, but we can train ourselves to imagine how it must feel to others to experience their happiness or satisfaction. This not only cleans our brain of ugly envy but also creates an unusual form of rapport. If we are the targets of Mitfreude, we feel the other person’s genuine excitement at our good fortune, instead of just hearing words, and it induces us to feel the same for them. Because it is such a rare occurrence, it contains great power to bond people. And in internalizing other people’s joy, we increase our own capacity to feel this emotion in relation to our own experiences.

Transmute envy into emulation. We cannot stop the comparing mechanism in our brains, so it is best to redirect it into something productive and creative. Instead of wanting to hurt or steal from the person who has achieved more, we should desire to raise ourselves up to his or her level. In this way, envy becomes a spur to excellence. We may even try to be around people who will stimulate such competitive desires, people who are slightly above us in skill level.

To make this work requires a few psychological shifts. First, we must come to believe that we have the capacity to raise ourselves up. Confidence in our overall abilities to learn and improve will serve as a tremendous antidote to envy. Instead of wishing to have what another has and resorting to sabotage out of helplessness, we feel the urge to get the same for ourselves and believe we have the ability to do so. Second, we must develop a solid work ethic to back this up. If we are rigorous and persistent, we will be able to overcome almost any obstacle and elevate our position. People who are lazy and undisciplined are much more prone to feeling envy.

Related to this, having a sense of purpose, a feel for your calling in life, is a great way to immunize yourself against envy. You are focused on your own life and plans, which are clear and invigorating. What gives you satisfaction is realizing your potential, not earning attention from the public, which is fleeting. You have much less need to compare. Your sense of self-worth comes from within, not from without.

Admire human greatness. Admiration is the polar opposite of envy—we are acknowledging people’s achievements, celebrating them, without having to feel insecure. We are admitting their superiority in the arts or sciences or in business without feeling pain from this. But this goes further. In recognizing the greatness of someone, we are celebrating the highest potential of our species. We are experiencing Mitfreude with the best in human nature. We share the pride that comes from any great human achievement. Such admiration elevates us above the pettiness of our day-to-day life and will have calming effect.

Although it is easier to admire without any taint of envy those who are dead, we must try to include at least one living person in our pantheon. If we are young enough, such objects of admiration can also serve as models to emulate, at least to some degree

Finally, it is worth cultivating moments in life in which we feel immense satisfaction and happiness divorced from our own success or achievements. This happens commonly when we find ourselves in a beautiful landscape—the mountains, the sea, a forest. We do not feel the prying, comparing eyes of others, the need to have more attention or to assert ourselves. We are simply in awe of what we see, and it is intensely therapeutic. This can also occur when we contemplate the immensity of the universe, the uncanny set of circumstances that had to come together for us to be born, the vast reaches of time before us and after us. These are sublime moments, and as far removed from the pettiness and poisons of envy as possible.

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