Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune and do so whenever he can with impunity, but he is also himself rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have.
– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
Envy. It takes us all at some point, usually when we’re at our weakest. Whenever I’m miserable or depressed, the sin rears it’s ugly head and poisons my mind. I have envied my friends, I have envied my family. It shames me to say it, yet it’s almost impossible to stop.
When we are children we are all envious creatures. We know little of the world or our own lives, we lack true empathy and are selfish beings. We look at the other children around us and see what they have and if we don’t have it, we want it. If another child has a new toy, we too need a new toy.
As children our envy stems somewhat from perceived injustices. Why should another child have something while we have nothing? How is that fair? Children can’t rationalise that another child getting a toy has very little to do with their own circumstances.
Growing into adulthood we don’t learn much, we are still prone to envy and jealousy and struggle with our feelings, we just find between ways to hide it from others.
Envy feeds on unhappiness. Talk to a happy person and they’ll feel not a shred of envy. Talk to an unhappy person and they’ll be overcome with it. Unhappiness is a lack of contentment, a lack of enjoyment in your life. Without enjoyment in our lives, we can easily look at others, see their lives and realise they are happier than we are. That’s when we start to feel envy. We’re jealous of the other person and what they have, not so much because they have it, but because we don’t.
Ironically, this creates more unhappiness for us. The more unhappy we become, the stronger our envy gets. The bigger the divide seems between our lives and the lives of others. Envy feeds off unhappiness, unhappiness feeds off envy and if nothing happens to stop either we just keep spiraling further and further downwards.
In modern society, I feel enviousness if something we can all fall into easily due to how we interact socially and what impression of ourselves we project.
Russell writes that,”Envy is immensely promoted by misfortunes in childhood. The child who finds a brother or sister preferred before himself acquires the habit of envy, and when he goes out into the world looks for injustices of which he is the victim, perceives them at once if they occur, and imagines them if they do not.”
This may have been true when he wrote his book 80 years ago, but now it seems enviousness isn’t so much a byproduct of our childhood as it is our upbringing.
We now live in a time period where we raise our children to chase their wants obsessively. A few generations ago, our lives were simpler, based around our needs. Needs in this case would mean things that give us an acceptable standard of living. We need food, water, and shelter, without them we would die.
Between the Second World War and now, our society has developed so quickly that these needs are no longer of any real matter. Food, water, and shelter are now almost assured for every person (in developed countries) from birth. Survival is almost guaranteed.
The downside to this is that we now survive with fairly meaningless lives. In the past fighting to survive was more than enough to give our lives meaning, now that we don’t need to partake in that fight, we need to find something else to give our lives justification.
Thankfully (or unthankfully) consumerism has replaced that hole in most of our lives. We are now no longer driven by what we need, but what we want. We don’t work to survive, but to buy new things. From a young age this philosophy is driven into us. Work hard and you can have anything you want. Our lives are focused on our wants, our desires, not on survival.
The thing about wants though, is that they are infinite and ever changing. Food, water, and shelter are three things that you can have or not have. Yet with our wants the list grows forever, you obtain one thing only for it to be replaced by something else.
This is the basis of our society, in a way. We constantly want new, better things and when we buy these things we pay money into the economy. This allows others to make their own money so they can also buy things. It all sounds so perfect that you would imagine no problems forming.
However, as I’ve mentioned, there is always something more we can want and sadly enough there is always somebody that will have that thing. When we realise we can’t have all of our wants, which is impossible due to the infinite amount of them, we perceive an injustice. “Why should one person have something and I not?”
From a young age children are now fed the fantasy of “You can have anything you desire, be anything you want to be.” When life fails to meet these expectations upon adult-hood, many of us sink into a depression. We don’t consider that our expectations are wrong, but rather question why the world is being unfair to us. We’re led to believe we will have what we want, not through hard work, just simply by existing. We assume that a wealthy person has money due to sheer luck and that we have nothing for no reason at all.
To combat these feelings of enviousness, Russell argues that we should “get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.”
By not comparing your life to others, you easily leave envy behind, however this is easier said than done. We are now constantly bombarded 24 hours a day by other people’s lives. Every time we connect to a social network we force ourselves to analyse our peers and and think about their situations.
The situations we see are often facades, although this rarely crosses our minds. Nobody would go out of their way to project their lives as unhappy or undesirable. We filter our lives so that others get a view of perfection. Looking at a person’s Facebook would usually show a life with very few problems (unless of course the person moaned a lot!) We see happy photos, happy holidays, happy lives. It’s easy for us to come to the conclusion that these people are happy because all evidence points that way. We try our best to never show our weaknesses, so people think we don’t have any.
The weakness in our own lives is plain for us to see and we feel angry. Why should we have weakness while another has none? In order to avoid envy, we need to come to the conclusion that everybody around us is just as weak as we are – but they’re also just as good as we are at hiding it.
Strangely, I believe that it’s only our peers that we truly envy. It’s hard to envy a celebrity’s wealth because our lives are hard to compare. They have more than we do, but so much more that what they have seems unobtainable. It’s hard to be jealous of Bill Gates for instance, because we can’t picture ourselves in his shoes. Our friends and family are at our own level, it’s easy to see ourselves in their position, so it’s easy to ask why they have something when we don’t.
I’ve noticed a lot of people have what I call “footballer envy”. They envy these sports stars and their money. I’ve seen far too many people complaining that such and such a footballer is being paid too much.
In this case we’re envious because of the amount of effort we assume a footballer gives. Many assume that footballers are just playing a game, that they aren’t working. Why should they be paid so much more than those of us that do work?
Really it’s a silly comparison to make because a footballer’s life is completely different to our own. They work hard and due to this hard work they are the best at what they do, which just so happens to be playing a game. If you were the top 100 of anything in the world, you’d probably be making a hell of a lot of money. These sports stars are the best of the best however they’re envied for being so.
Is there a true cure for modern envy? Yes and no. We can all be overcome with it, but the best way to get over it is to become content with ourselves. When you are content with your own life, then you will no longer compare it to others. You won’t care that somebody has something better than you because you wont want anything more than what you have.
Be grateful for what you possess, rather than what you don’t. There’s always going to be something better out there (whether it’s a better TV or better girlfriend) but by constantly looking to improve on things you’ll just end up chasing forever and ever. Stuck in a life of disappointment
Don’t look to be happy, look to be content. Ensure your needs are fulfilled and remember the difference between a want and a need. Then you may keep envy at bay.
Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness is one of my favourite self-help books and still as revelant today as it was when it was published. You can buy it off Amazon here or read it for free online here.
Photo by Mohammadali F