A life without envy
‘Our envy of others devours us most of all,’ said Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And two thousand years before that, Socrates called envy the ‘ulcer of the soul’. Envy is an emotion as old as humanity. It is insidious and corrosive, eating away at us as we hunger for the things we don’t have but think we need. And if anger was the defining emotion of the 90s, when the papers were plastered with stories about road rage, air rage, trolley rage and every other kind of rage, envy may come to define the Noughties. After all, the credit crunch could never have existed without greed, and greed cannot exist without envy – an insatiable desire for more that can never be fulfilled, no matter how much we have.
This desire was stoked primarily by the media, whether it be property supplements making us salivate over gleaming inner-city penthouses or cavernous barn conversions, or the covers of women’s glossies adorned with impossibly skinny models, A-listers and celebrities. The pre-credit crunch era was defined by a constant drip, drip of pressure to be richer, thinner, prettier, younger, get more equity in our houses or the latest piece of hi-tech, must-have gadgetry. And now, of course, we are paying a heavy price, as the debt-filled bubble inflated by all that envy and greed has burst, messily and painfully.
In Affluenza, psychologist Oliver James describes this constant yearning for things we don’t really need or can never be as a sickness that causes a permanent state of insecurity, which in turn leads to anxiety and depression. ‘The classic example of envy is that, in the English-speaking world, women are made to be obsessed with their physical appearance in a way that women are not in other countries. For example, in Russia or Denmark women want to please the person they are looking at in the mirror, not make other women envious or men long for them,’ he says.
James believes that this particular brand of envy is unique to English-speaking countries like the UK or US, driven by our obsession with celebrity magazines and the far higher rate at which we are bombarded with advertising – the US spends four times per capita more on advertising than continental Europe, while we spend twice as much. ‘Our envy is also fuelled by magazines like Heat, or stories like one I recently saw in the papers which featured a photo of Kate Moss’s bottom and a headline laughing at her cellulite,’ says James. ‘The celebrity culture here builds people up to knock them down, so we get the simultaneous message of “The only thing that matters is to be a millionaire, to be famous and a contestant on Big Brother,” with a constant drip of destructive, envious commentary on the people who have the things we’re told we should have.’
This still doesn’t explain why some of us envy more than others, or where this unhelpful emotion comes from. Why, when bombarded with the same adverts, newspaper headlines and glossy magazine features, do some people remain perfectly content with their size-12 body and average life, while others would give anything to slither into Kate Moss’s skinny jeans or go shopping on Bond Street with the WAGs?
The answer, as with most adult afflictions, lies in our childhood. Melanie Klein, one of the 20th century’s great psychoanalysts, wrote in Envy and Gratitude that our envious feelings begin when we’re tiny babies and gather pace throughout our childhood. We can all remember the sickening feeling of seeing a sibling favoured over us, how much we resented the arrival of a new baby, the acute pain of wearing hand-me-downs while our friends wore designer jeans to school, or got bigger, flashier toys than us every Christmas.
Phillip Hodson, of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says these experiences are common to most children. ‘In our first introduction to social life and the family, we notice that some people have more things than others. Envy is usually about things and stuff, as opposed to jealousy, which is about wanting the people themselves to have a relationship with you.’
Sibling rivalry is at the same time one of the classic manifestations and origins of envy. And the ruthless competitiveness we feel with our brothers and sisters can be compounded by parents who are envious of their neighbours, friends and peers – this teaches us that envy is a normal, acceptable reaction to the experience of having less than those around us. Hodson agrees with Oliver James in blaming our money-obsessed society for the envy epidemic that has recently taken hold. But he emphasises that the things we lust after will never bring us the happiness or satisfaction we crave, mostly because they are merely symbolic of the things we really want. ‘Some people think that unless they’ve got a certain house, car, etc they are nothing,’ he says. ‘But these things are always symbolic of deeper needs. In a way, we’re looking for the great goals in life, which are a sense of security, secure attachment to another and, ultimately, feeling valuable and loved.’
How to change
It seems clear that envy, particularly in its most naked, unhealthy form is bad news. Not only does it leave us in a state of constant insecurity and dissatisfaction, it can cause stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. But if our childhood experiences made us prone to envious feelings, how can we loosen their grip? Is it possible to step off the live-to-consume treadmill and be satisfied with what we have? Can we learn to stop comparing our physical appearance to those rare few blessed with beauty and a slender physique?
According to Phillip Hodson, we can. He says the first step is to think about the areas of our lives that may need some attention: ‘Do you have your health? If not, could you do more for it? Do you have activity that is of some meaning to you? Do you have relationships in which people are affectionate to you and think you’re worthwhile? If not, could you invest more in those relationships – end a feud, make amends to your family or get in touch with your estranged children?’
And instead of focusing on what we want, he suggests thinking about how much we give. Hodson believes that giving of ourselves is one of the most ‘beautifully selfish’ things we can do, and a raft of studies back this up. They consistently show that giving our time, money and energy to others is one of the most powerful ways to improve our own mental health. For example, you might take a hot meal to your elderly neighbours or do their shopping for them; get involved with a local youth group or charity; or perhaps donate your skills and experience to an organisation that needs them – see www.giveyourtime.org to find charities close to your home and heart.
Can envy ever be healthy?
Professor Windy Dryden, author of Overcoming Envy, argues that envy can also be a force for good. He agrees with his peers that envy is caused by the perception that someone has something you don’t that you prize. But he differentiates between unhealthy envy, in which you might want to take those things from the other person, and healthy envy, which will help motivate you to get what you want. Dryden argues that to get from one to the other, we simply need to think differently. ‘You can turn unhealthy envy into healthy envy by changing your attitude,’ he says. ‘Someone with a chronic envy problem is constantly focusing on what they don’t have. This is often caused by the rigid and extreme beliefs that they hold about things – I must have that house to be happy, I hate having less than my sister. If they want to change their disturbance they need to make those ideas flexible and non-extreme.’
Because unhealthy envy is rooted in powerful, often unconscious childhood experiences, changing one’s thinking might require the help of a skilled therapist – there is often no quick fix. But for those of us for whom envy is a troubling, but less chronic problem, one of the simplest and most effective attitude adjustments is to feel grateful for what we have, not hard done by for what we don’t.
One simple technique, developed by Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement, is to keep a ‘gratitude journal’. Simply write something you feel grateful for in a journal, however small, four times a week. Seligman’s research found this made a meaningful difference to people’s happiness in just three weeks. Another useful exercise is to write a ‘gratitude letter’ to a person who has exerted a positive influence on your life but you have not properly thanked in the past, and then meet that person and read them the letter face to face.
Finally, despite our credit crunch-induced worries about job security and financial hardship, we should recognise how lucky most of us are – especially compared with those struggling for daily survival in the developing world, and even our own ancestors. ‘Are you grateful for everything you do have?’ asks Phillip Hodson. ‘Remember that compared to most people in human history, we’re incredibly lucky. Humanity, especially in the West, is now living as high on the hog as it’s possible to get – normal people live as kings used to in terms of their diet, comfort levels, safety and the huge range of choices available to them.’
It’s also worth remembering that life’s fundamentals – love, health and meaningful relationships – are what we truly crave, and how blessed we are if we’re lucky enough to have them.
How to make unhealthy envy healthy
•Acknowledge your envy by accepting you are prone to unhealthy envy
•Take responsibility by acknowledging that you hold irrational beliefs about situations and/or people
•Test these beliefs and show that they are false, illogical and self-defeating
•Retrace your thoughts to come up with rational alternatives – for example, something that might feel unfair to you could just be bad luck.
•Harness your envy by becoming envious in a healthy way. Seek out what you envy when you truly want it, when you can achieve it and when the costs of doing so are not too high