For a successful and happy life we need to get along with others. Envy and jealousy, however, create friction and rupture relationships, proving to be counterproductive. In this article, I will focus on envy, but begin with a comparison of the two.
Jealousy is that unpleasant emotion you feel when you believe someone is trying to take away what is yours. For example, if someone starts flirting with YOUR sweetheart or spouse, you may be afraid that they are trying to steal your loved one’s affection, thereby growing resentful. This would be jealousy. On the other hand, envy is wanting something that is not yours and resenting thosewho have it. With these introductory remarks out of the way, let’s focus on envy.
To be envious is to regret one’s failure to achieve good fortune or to regret the successes of others. It is often accompanied by a false sense of entitlement. Instead of working for what they want, envious people may believe they deserve it merely because they want it. Also, in their twisted perspective, they may imagine that the gains of others have been taken from them, so they are filled with anger. The envious suffer twice, when they don’t succeed and when others do. Their negative attitude makes them unpopular, which further escalates their envy.
Envy manifests itself in three stages. The first is the regret of one’s loss. For example, you may have been in a golf tournament, beauty pageant, speech contest, or a political campaign. And despite your best effort, you may have had to watch someone else win. To feel a bit envious at that time is hardly surprising. As long as you lose gracefully, congratulate the winner, and wish them well, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Occasional losses are helpful as we can use them to develop our strength and character.
This first stage of envy is harmless, but not so for the second stage, which is to resent the good fortune of others. This animosity may be expressed by ill will toward others. For instance, to increase our chances of winning, we may wish our golf opponent lands his ball in the sand trap. A beauty contestant may hope her rival falls off the stage during her dance routine, or a speaker may prayer that his challenger freezes in fear and forgets his speech. And a politician may hope the opposition drops out of the race because of a blunder.
What’s so bad about wishing our rival a streak of bad luck? After all, thoughts can’t harm anyone, can they? Wrong! Firstly, they can harm us by festering in our soul, for as the Greek Dramatist, Antisthenes, wrote 2,400 years ago, “As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed by their own passion.” Second, where do malicious acts originate? Don’t they all begin as thoughts? That’s what makes the second stage of envy harmful. It has the potential of reaching the third stage, which is action taken to hurt others.
So you see, if we’re not careful, a little “innocent” envy can develop into hateful actions. This is why envy is treated seriously in The Bible: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17) Again, “A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30)
Those who act maliciously because of envy usually begin by criticizing and maligning others, as well as lying and spreading rumors. Although the envious are troublesome to others, they are a torment to themselves. As they sink further into despair, they may engage in violent behavior. Thus, envy can lead to hate crimes and more. Envy and its harmful consequences cause one to feel ashamed and may lead to self-loathing. Envy springs from a sense of emptiness or unworthiness and the resultant thoughts and malicious acts are done to dull, soften, or conceal the pain.
Envy is not always immediately obvious because it may be consciously or subconsciously covered up. For example, if Tom envies his coworker because of his success, rather than admit it, he may downplay his coworker’s success by claiming it was brought about by a streak of good luck or because he sucks up to the boss. Most of us are also guilty of hiding our own envy from ourselves. Here’s an interesting exercise: Is there someone you dislike? If so, why? You see, when we dislike people, it is often because we envy them. On a conscious level, we may think that we don’t like someone because they are too noisy, aggressive, or gossipy, but they are just subconscious excuses we use to allow ourselves to continue believing we are honorable even though we dislike someone (because we envy them).
If someone is envious of you and treats you coldly, try to be compassionate. They may act cruelly, but it’s because they are unlike you. That is, they lack your strength. If they belittle you, they’re just trying to cut you down to their size. Yet, if you extend your hand in friendship, you may have the power to change their life. By your own example, you will be able to teach them that blowing out another’s candle will not make their own shine brighter. So, if a coworker is envious of you, do not reproach them as that will only make the situation worse. Rather, your best course of action is to recognize their achievements and let them know you are interested in their success. Additional steps to take include the following:
1. Remain humble. Don’t flaunt your success or rub it in.
2. Always be willing to help your coworkers succeed. Lend a helping hand, offer helpful suggestions, and treat them as valuable team members. Treating them with respect and appreciation will nullify any feelings of envy.
3. Share the credit. Give your colleagues and subordinates their share of credit for your success. After all, how could you succeed without the help of your teammates?
4. Don’t act superior or more deserving. For example, just because you are a supervisor or manager doesn’t mean you can take two hour lunch breaks while your staff must be back to work in an hour.
Summing up, the cure for envy is goodwill, benevolence, and generosity. The secret is to focus on others instead of ourselves. It is only by helping others that we will be helped.
Is there someone you envy? The best thing you can do is to befriend them. When you express your admiration for their accomplishments, they will be happy to pass on tips on how you, too, can be successful. Instead of nurturing resentment, inspire yourself by their example, and emulate their success. Focus on, “How can I achieve that?” instead of “I wish I had that.” Use your negative emotions to help you grow. Life is like photography; we need negatives to develop.
A Practical Application of the Principles
Now that we have a basic understanding of envy, let’s look at a practical application based on a reader’s question and my answer.
Reader’s Question: “One of my biggest challenges is overcoming envy and resentment. My Father was very successful but became ill about 10 years ago and stopped working and lost a lot of money.
“A lot my friends have extremely wealthy parents and for some reason I resent it very much!
“I pay my rent every month and am doing extremely well for myself but for some reason I keep focusing on what I don’t have and what my friends do have.
“Most people would do anything to be in my position; yet, I’m still focusing on what I don’t have. And it bothers me that I will have to work so hard to get everything I want.
“Do you have any suggestions?”
Answer: Envy is pervasive and, therefore, makes an excellent topic. Even though it is widespread, however, the degree to which it is troubling varies from person to person. Yet, there is good reason to try to remove it from our lives, for envy is a thief that robs us of happiness. Or, as Buddha put it, “He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind.”
Besides robbing us of happiness, envy also prevents us from enjoying what we already have. Worse than that is the physical damage done to our bodies by the toxic emotions of envy, resentment, and frustration. By the way, the knowledge that negative emotions have an adverse effect on our body is hardly new. For even the Old Testament teaches, “Envy and wrath shorten the life.” (Ecclesiastes, 30:24)
Even if you were to think of envy as a trifling matter, at times the smallest of concerns can lead to huge problems if we do not nip it in the bud. For this reason, the British Cleric, Poet, and Mystic Thomas Traherne wrote, “A little grit in the eye destroyeth the sight of the very heavens, and a little malice or ENVY a world of joys. One wry principle in the mind is of infinite consequence.”
When his family was well-off, our reader felt comfortable among his wealthy friends. But after his family became impoverished, he felt that life was unfair. He wondered why this was happening to him and not his friends. After all, he was just as deserving, if not more so. Therefore, he grew resentful.
Why did this happen to our reader? Probably because life had better plans for him. You see, when everything is handed to us on a silver platter, we are denied the exhilaration and joy that follows success after a long struggle. True, if we inherit great wealth, we can spend it on various pleasures, but how short-lived they are! How shallow they are! Unless we struggle for our success, we will never know what it means to live a thrilling adventure, which is what life was meant to be.
The moral for our reader is embrace your turn of fortune. Delight in the knowledge that it represents an opportunity for you to reach undreamed of heights. You were placed on earth to live as a hero, not a beggar. Besides, why do you want to be like your friends? Greatness lies in following your own path. Strive for uniqueness, not conformity. The paradox is that very often having less is having more. For when we have less wealth, we often have more drive, more ambition, more direction, more purpose, and more adventure.
Also, please understand there is a great difference between those who have had wealth handed to them and those who have had to work hard for their success. The difference is the former can lose everything they have, for all they have is wealth. But if the latter lose their wealth, they still have the skills and knowledge they gained during their struggles. Armed with know-how and the scars to prove they can overcome obstacles, they have the resilience to bounce back after a so-called defeat. They are true survivors, for it is not wealth that provides security, but resilience.
It also needs to be said that envy is ignorance of the problems that others have. Your friends may be unhappy, have relationship problems, be ill, worried about the future, be bored, feel lost, be unsure of themselves, or have any number of other problems. It is only your ignorance of their complaints that makes you envy them.
Additionally, you seem to be confused about the true nature of wealth. Wealth is freedom from want. By “freedom from want,” I don’t mean freedom from a lack of possessions, but freedom from a NEED for possessions. What you, your friends, and I really want is happiness. Constantly bombarded by commercials, however, we are often led astray, believing the next great product will bring happiness.
But, alas, happiness does not come from HAVING more, but BEING more. Being MORE cooperative, helpful, encouraging, accepting, patient, understanding, trusting, supportive, compassionate, forgiving, cheerful, and caring. This form of behaviour is aligned with our true nature, so when we act that way, we feel good and discover what it is like to have heaven on earth. Moreover, when we wish others well and celebrate their successes, we uplift ourselves and destroy any remnants of envy.
In the second paragraph, our reader writes “…for some reason I keep focusing on what I don’t have…” His behaviour doesn’t stem from some mysterious reason; it’s simply based on force of habit. So, it’s time to change the habit. It’s simple to do. Just start each day by writing the following questions and answering them in a journal: “What am I grateful for today? What am I excited about today? What am I looking forward to today?”
Answering these questions keeps you focused on the positive, energizes you, and jump-starts your day. Repeat this daily, and in a short time, you’ll begin to see life in a new way. Much has been written about the importance of gratitude and I’m sure you KNOW all about that, but now it’s time for you to EXPERIENCE it.
Also, remember that envy is a dead-end street. It will get you nowhere. For as Bertrand Russell said, “If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.”
Summing up, I suggest our reader strive to BECOME more rather than HAVE more. One way of doing so is by living by the creed of William A. Ward “Blessed is he who has learned to admire but not envy, to follow but not imitate, to praise but not flatter, and to lead but not manipulate.”
ENVY: A Theory of Social Behaviourby Helmut Schoeck
EMOTIONAL FREEDOM: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life by Judith Orloff
Overcoming Envy and Jealousy
How to Overcome Envy