While you are at a meeting, you receive a text from your best friend announcing that she has been admitted into a Master’s programme at Princeton. As your eyes skim over the message, you feel a tinge of envy. Just last year, you received a pile of rejects from all the top universities for your MBA. So, you decided to work for another couple of years before figuring out your next move. Whereas, your friend just sails into her top choice.
Though you tell yourself that you are happy for her, your mind also starts comparing all the times you did better than her. Class 10 Boards, inter-school quizzes, and a more prestigious undergraduate degree. Yet, she is now the one with the golden feather in her cap. The unfairness of it begins to gnaw at you, leaving you in a bit of a funk the whole morning. In the afternoon, just as your caffeine boost perks you up, you realise that you haven’t sent a congratulatory message to your friend. Quelling your envious thoughts, you tap out a warm message and, the moment you press ‘Send’, you start feeling better about the whole situation, including yourself.
In an article in Psychology Today, psychiatrist, Neel Burton defines envy as “personal pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others.” Many people don’t necessarily acknowledge they are envious, even to themselves. This is possibly due to the fact that we feel diminished by another person. Second, recognising our own envy can make us feel even smaller. So, instead of labelling our internal disquiet as envy, we downplay or blind ourselves to the achievements or good fortune of others. But suppressing or denying negative feelings usually makes them more potent and corrosive, both to ourselves and our relationships.
In an article in The Guardian, writer Moya Sarner declares that we inhabit an “age of envy”, as we are incessantly bombarded by social media feeds of picture-perfect lives and stratospheric achievements of others that rub in the ordinariness of our mundane activities and prosaic lives. As our circle of online contacts usually far exceeds our physical network of family, friends and colleagues, envy tends to play a more dominant role in our lives as we have a wider arc of social comparisons nowadays. Sarner cites research that finds that people who scroll through social media more frequently tend to experience more envy.
Embrace the feeling
So, what can we do when we find ourselves turning green at someone else’s success or good fortune? The first step, for any form of emotional regulation, is to recognise and label the emotion. Don’t berate yourself for feeling envious. How you deal with it matters more than the raw feeling. Instead of stewing in negative thoughts on how life is unfair or why that person doesn’t deserve the recognition, prove to yourself that you can rise beyond your petty thoughts. Instead of allowing envy to rule over your behaviour, exhibit grace by sending a heartfelt congratulatory message.
How can it be heartfelt when you are envious, you may ask? Another way of interpreting envy is that you respect what another person has done. After all, if it was a trivial accomplishment, why would it have bothered you? By congratulating the person, you are validating their achievement. Surprising as it may sound, people who have accomplished a goal feel doubly good when their efforts are recognised and appreciated by others. In fact, when you express admiration of another person, your relationship with them grows more robust.
Moreover, envy can also propel you to better yourself. As Juliana Breines writes in Greater Good Magazine, envy “alerts us to things” we may desire but may not have actively pursued. So, if a colleague gets a promotion that you wish you had strived for, you may decide that you will be more punctual, proactive and productive at work. Rather than investing your energies into feeling bad for yourself, you alter your work habits and move forward.
As writer Joshua Becker reminds us in an article on the website becomingminimalist.com, we don’t have to view life as a competition. Happiness, unlike fossil fuels, is a renewable resource, and we can craft our own inner lives by choosing how to respond to various situations. If a family member, friend or colleague experiences success, we have a choice. We can either stew in envy or rise above our own pettiness to revel in the joy of others, thereby enriching their and our own lives.
The writer blogs at www.arunasankaranaryanan.com and is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.