Envy is that thing that can happen when your coworker gets the promotion you were angling for, or a friend finds the “perfect” new relationship while you’re feeling lonely. It’s essentially a comparison in which you find your life or circumstances lacking. Envy, in Western culture, can get confusing in that it’s easy to mix up with the American dream of striving for more. After all, wanting to improve is a great motivator, right? But what about when it spills over into resentment and never feeling satisfied?
We are the epitome of the “grass is always greener” society. We’re conditioned by the media and advertisers to always want a bigger toy, a more tricked-out mansion. Here are some warning signs: you go out with friends and find yourself paying more attention to their clothes and shoes than to their conversations; you see other couples out to dinner and automatically assume their conversations are funnier and more fulfilling than yours; or you can’t be happy with an A-minus because someone else in class got an A.
If you recognize those situations, you may be stuck in the envy trap.
Think of solving envy like refocusing a camera lens from far away to a close-up. Instead of gazing on the vista from miles away (which looks so pretty partly because you can’t make out any details), you zoom in on the scene within a 10-foot radius. You’re changing from a dreamy, idealized vision to a clear, intimate one, where there might be more flaws but everything is also within reach. When we stay in our lives instead of looking at other people’s, we’re in reality, which is a great place to take stock and either enjoy or make changes.
Here are five basic suggestions for how to begin changing this focus and reducing your envy:
1. Know You’re Not Seeing the Whole Picture
It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and assume they’re doing much better than we are—and this tendency is only amplified by social media. We see vacation photos on Instagram or filtered head shots on Tinder and think, “This person has it all.” A 2014 study examining the tendency of people to get depressed after looking at Facebook calls the phenomenon “social comparisons,” meaning the more we look at idealized versions of other people, the more we see our own lives as second-rate.
Instead of deleting all our social media accounts, however, another way to approach social comparisons is to be aware we’re doing it, to be conscious that what we see online is distorted (the study calls our friends’ Facebook pages their “highlight reels”) and to limit our time scrolling. Look at others with realism and remind yourself that no one knows what goes on behind closed doors, and that most peoples’ lives are roughly equivalent. Everyone suffers, and everyone goes through good times only to experience struggles later.
Anytime we want to change our thoughts, the rule of thumb is to identify the problematic thought, figure out a replacement thought we believe in, and start practicing the exchange. So if you often look at others and think, “They’re happier/smarter/better than me,” decide on another thought that feels better. Perhaps it’s, “Everyone has problems, even if I can’t see them.” Or, “It’s pointless to compare when I have no idea how they really live.” Then start the long process of repeating the new phrase. If you’ve spent years putting energy into feeling envious, it may take an equal amount of energy to change the thoughts.
2. Practice Kindness
When we look at life as a competition, we’re stuck seeing other people as rivals. This is a lonely place to be—it ruins our chances of feeling connected. When we use compassion, however, we can try to be happy for their successes, aware of their faults, and sympathetic for the other stuff in their lives that might not be going perfectly. Suddenly, our coworkers are not manipulative so-and-sos after our jobs, but rather trying to do the best they can and protect their families, just like us.
Kindness also works when we point it toward ourselves. Sure, we’re bummed that we’re having money troubles, but we don’t have to compound the pain by blaming ourselves and comparing ourselves unfavorably to the neighbors. If you find yourself walking into a party and thinking everyone else has better clothes, or feeling embarrassed by your old car when you park it next to a new Lexus, give yourself a break. By setting sensible expectations and celebrating small victories, you can be gentler on yourself.
3. Accept That Life Isn’t Fair
Let’s ask the hard questions: Who said everyone was supposed to get everything equally? Who promised us we’d have the exact same luck and privilege as everyone else? And why should we be the lucky ones? Whether there’s a plan for our struggle or it’s just the randomness of life, it’s unproductive to look at anyone else’s lot. All we have is our own journey, the cards we were dealt, and what we do with them now.
These are essentially existential questions, and many people find solace in religious or spiritual answers. However you make sense of the world and create meaning of it, it’s important to find a way to accept that we’re not fully in control of what happens to us and others, and to feel okay with that reality.
4. Be in the Moment
Looking back is often steeped in regret; looking forward often means wishful thinking. Both are fantasies and unrealistic expectations of perfection. When we’re living in the present, however, we can not only accept what’s true and right in front of us (our beautiful kids, for example, or today’s lovely weather), but also shield ourselves from wanting more.
Looking back is often steeped in regret; looking forward often means wishful thinking. Zen Buddhism teaches that this moment has everything it needs to be perfect. This can be a little hard to accept if this moment is full of health problems or money fears, but if we believe even a fraction of the idea is true, there’s plenty to be grateful for. One quick exercise to increase the sense of being present: sit, take a deep breath, and look around. Name five colors you see, four items you can touch, three sounds you can hear, two scents you can smell, and one taste in your mouth. By zoning in on our senses, we instantly anchor ourselves in the moment, and for at least a few seconds we can forget there’s anything else to worry about. Practicing this sort of mindfulness daily can help you soothe your anxieties and stop competitive thinking.
5. Live from Your Values
When we get swept up in feelings that are uncomfortable, it’s helpful to ask ourselves, “Is what I’m doing (comparing, shaming, criticizing, etc.) something I value?” If you value, as many people do, kindness and fairness, then remembering those higher standards can knock you out of the resentful feelings of jealousy and anger.
If this seems like a lofty idea, start small. List three values you live by (there are hundreds to consider, but honesty, generosity, positivity, compassion, or wisdom are where many people begin). To envy someone is to judge them and yourself; the likelihood is the values you’ve listed don’t leave much room for judgments. So by thinking more about the morals you want to live by, you’ll be able to put envy in perspective, and rise above it.
Unlike determination, which allows us to try our best and hope to improve, envy is painful. It tells us we’re never good enough. Worse, it puts the emphasis and attention on everyone else, instead of where it belongs: on our lives, our accomplishments, and our friends and family. By turning the lens back to what matters to us, in this moment, in a realistic and balanced way, we can take the first steps toward self-acceptance and contentment.
Walton, A. G. (2015, April 8). New Study Links Facebook To Depression: But Now We Actually Understand Why. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/04/08/new-study-links-facebook-to-depression-but-now-we-actually-understand-why/