The Antidote to Envy

Written by Lifebook Member Dr. Joel Wade, Ph.D.

One step in building a better quality of life is dealing with what gets in the way for us. Envy can be a huge barrier to success, and mastering this particular emotion can open doors that we’ve padlocked on ourselves with its devastating premise.

Envy is an ugly emotion with awful effects. Most religious and spiritual teachings warn of it, the dangers are well known, yet envy persists as a powerful destructive force. It isn’t about having very little, we aren’t particularly unhappy when we have very little; but we do become very unhappy, depressed, and bitter when we dwell on having less than our neighbor.

But there is an antidote to envy: empathy, and the effective redirection of our initial impulses. It can also help to more fully understand this destructive and bitter emotion.

Envy de-humanizes the person envied. When we envy another person, we are not seeing that person for who they are, we are seeing them for what they have. It breeds malevolence; when we envy, we are not happy for the success of our neighbor, we are resentful of it.

Envy serves to diminish our capacity for empathy, and this lack of empathy makes it possible for people to do horrible things to one another.

It also reinforces a self image of helplessness and impotence. Envy implies disbelief in ourselves; it presupposes that we don’t feel we can create the wealth, the relationships, the values that we see in others, and this helplessness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, limiting our ability to work toward what we would like to create in our lives.

But, like any negative emotion, by catching ourselves and understanding what we’re feeling, we can redirect our actions in a way that works much better for us.

Envy is, initially, an impulse; a reaction to perceptions. But that’s not where the danger lies. We’ve probably all felt at least a twinge of envy as an emotion at some point in our lives. It becomes dangerous only when we hang on to it, indulge it, and feed it.

We are full of somewhat automatic emotional reactions. Malcolm Gladwell has written in Blink how people who think of themselves as free of racist sentiment – himself included – have been shown to have an involuntary emotional reaction to people who look different from themselves.

But this reaction tells us nothing about racism. It is a vestige of our long tribal past, when “different” likely meant violent conflict and mortal danger. We see “different,” and there is a reflexive moment of alert. But research has shown that in less than 4 minutes, if there is no attention drawn to such physical differences, if there is more in common through work or fun or some other activity, the emotional impact of racial differences disappears entirely.

The first reaction is biological, the second is consciously human.

Of course there are plenty of people who make it a practice to continually draw attention to racial differences, and this is what perpetuates racism as a cultural force. The same goes for envy. It’s not unusual to see something that someone else has and desire it – as an impulse.

But the important thing, the question that fuels much of the drama of life because it cuts to the core of our conscious values and convictions, is what do we do with that initial impulse?

Do we hang onto it, indulge it, and follow it? Or do we take that impulse and transform it into useful action – in the case of envy, thinking of how we might earn the money to buy what we’d like, or use it to recognize something we may value, something we may admire in another person, and seek to develop those qualities in ourselves?

When I was playing water polo as a young man, there were moments when I was stricken with a wave of envy fighting for my position on the team. There could only be one starting goalkeeper, and once in awhile if I was behind I would catch myself feeling resentment toward the fellow I was vying with for that spot – who was also a very good friend.

That friendship (along with the fact that I knew better) was a godsend, because it kept a human connection, so it always brought me back very quickly from indulging in envy and refocusing on the task at hand: To play my very best, regardless of the circumstances.

We all want things. There’s nothing wrong with wanting things, it’s part of our nature; and to the degree that this desire spurs us on to be creative and productive, it can be a great force for good.

But when we see other people with the things that we want, whether it be tangible items like a nice car or home, or less tangible accomplishments like a career or a triumph or a happy life, then another element can invite itself in to our experience: A focus on the thing desired, and a weakening of the perception of the holder of that thing as human.

We also can be oblivious to what it took them to achieve what they have, which is another part of empathy.

Is there something that you want in your life? What do you need to do to earn that? Channel your desire into active, benevolent behavior that has integrity with your conscious values, principles, and priorities.

If you find yourself coveting what somebody else has, catch yourself, and remind yourself that envy is a passive, helpless stance. Think about what they must have done to get where they are, and see if you can find a way to earn what they have that you are drawn to.

If you find yourself enjoying somebody else’s loss, catch yourself, and remind yourself that nothing good can come of following that impulse, and open yourself to doing whatever your best is, while appreciating the best that others bring.

We have lots of feelings and impulses, and part of the challenge of life is mastering those feelings and impulses, and directing the expression of them toward what we value consciously. We can’t often choose our impulses, but we can choose whether and how we express them. That choice is the foundation of self-ownership and genuine happiness.

Just because we feel angry doesn’t mean that we have to strike somebody; just because we’re afraid doesn’t mean that we have to cower; just because we hurt doesn’t mean that we have to withdraw.

…and just because we like what somebody else has doesn’t mean that we have to indulge in envy.

There’s the key… time to open those doors.

About Dr. Joel Wade

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of The Virtue of Happiness and Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and Life Coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website, www.drjoelwade.com, or visit his free Mastering Happiness Podcast

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