At the gym, I idly thumb through a back issue of the Harvard Business Review. A headline, “Envy at Work,” catches my eye. I glance at paragraph one:
As you enter your recently promoted colleague’s office, you notice a photograph of his beautiful family in their new vacation home. He casually adjusts his custom suit and mentions his upcoming board meeting and speech in Davos. On one hand, you want to feel genuinely happy for him and celebrate his successes. On the other, you hope he falls into a crevasse in the Alps.
Hello. You’re playing my song. Alas, I’ve been there more than once, my good Buddhist training battling—unsuccessfully—my envious heart.
And I’m not alone, right? Envy is “universal,” assert the authors of the HBR article, psychologist Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson, a management professor. And psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers for the most part agree: envy is a standard-issue human emotion, albeit the one we are least likely to admit to, even to ourselves.
With that in mind, I ask two young colleagues, “What do you think about envy?” Vigorous shaking of heads. “Nope, never feel it,” one declares. Nodding in agreement, the other says, “My mother always told us not to envy anyone. You don’t know their story—what the rest of their life is like, or what they’re feeling inside.”
She’s right, of course. Envy rests on comparing ourselves to others—and coming up short. Comparing per se isn’t the problem. It can be beneficial if it motivates us to take action on our own behalf—to start exercising or meditating, say, or to apply for a more challenging job. But invidious comparisons are deleterious all around.
In Buddhist teachings, envy isn’t clearly distinguished from jealousy. So I try another tack with my colleagues. “What about jealousy? Ever feel that?” I ask. “Of course!” one shoots back, laughing. “All the time!” And off we go on the fickleness of boyfriends.
Jealousy—fear of losing someone we value—is at least marginally justifiable and therefore socially acceptable. Envy—discontent or anger that someone else has something we want but don’t possess, be it beauty, talent, a coveted job, or just dumb luck—is neither justifiable nor condoned. La Rochefoucauld, that astute observer of human nature, defined the difference: “Jealousy is in some measure just and reasonable since it tends only to retain a good which belongs to us, whereas envy is a fury that cannot endure the good of others.”
However couched it might be, envy by its very nature is hostile. The word comes from the Latin invidere, to regard maliciously, to grudge. Unlike its cousin greed, envy doesn’t just crave the object of its desire, it taints the whole project, begrudging others what they have and, when all else fails, devaluing or destroying the desired object.
Psychologists, unlike Buddhists, distinguish between envy and jealousy. Jealousy is a triangulation among equals: I’m jealous of the glamorous new neighbor my boyfriend has been chatting up, afraid that she’s going to drive a wedge between us. Envy is an unequal misalliance of two, with the envied person one up, the envier one down. I envy the new hire for being younger, smarter, and more tech savvy than I. And if I’m convinced my job is in jeopardy as a result, then consciously or unconsciously, I might try to sabotage the upstart.
Nothing good attaches to envy, a sin in every major religion. Two German social psychologists who study envy say that “among the seven deadlies, it occupies a unique position: it’s the only sin that is never fun.” Even schadenfreude—wicked pleasure in someone else’s misfortune—is usually short-lived: soon enough, the bitter taste of hatred rises in your throat, and shame and guilt flood your system.
Envy is the curse of the insecure. Often, a strong streak of competitiveness runs through it: we generally reserve envy for people whose circumstances are close to our own. I don’t envy Bill Gates: no way can I identify with technical genius or the ability to parlay it into billions. Similarly, I feel no envy for Meryl Streep. Though we went to the same college—OK, she’s younger, though not by much—I’ve never aspired to movie stardom or having paparazzi camped on my doorstep. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu? Their goodness is beyond reach. But—no surprise—I simmer with envy in the face of publishing success.
A six-figure book contract fell into a writer friend’s lap: he hadn’t gone after it; an editor came to him with the idea. That it happened to be a subject I had been researching for a book of my own made it all the more galling. But it’s not as if my friend snatched success from my jaws. His editor didn’t know I existed, so why would she consider me for the project? Even so, I stewed. Why him? Why not me? How come he gets all the breaks? He’s not smarter than I am. What does he have that I don’t?
Objectively speaking, there are a number of reasons he deserved the contract: he’s a good writer, his books have gravitas, and they sell. (Any one of his books has probably outsold my entire oeuvre combined.) Resorting to gossip and attacks on his personality to shore up my tattered ego, I completely overlooked one of his biggest assets in today’s competitive market: doggedness in promoting himself and showcasing his talents. He ghostwrites, teaches workshops and online courses, coaches fledgling writers, and maximizes his social media presence.
So-called benign envy—admiration, really—would inspire me to be similarly proactive about my own career. “Envy, so spoiling and injurious, can, if suffered consciously, point us toward the good we thirst for,” suggests the Jungian analyst Ann Ulanov, coauthor of Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying. A conscientious Buddhist would seize the opportunity to practice the brahma-viharas, in particular mudita—feeling joy for the good fortune of others. In my case, alas, joy for my writer friend has been a long time coming.
Not to excuse my deplorable response, but envy among friends is ubiquitous. Pop culture has given it a catchy tag: friendvy, or frenvy, if you prefer. Much as we want to celebrate our friends’ successes—and most of the time I do—it’s not uncommon to also feel a twinge of envy when they win big, especially at something we have wished for ourselves or worked hard to achieve.
It would be tempting to dismiss friend envy as primarily kid stuff. Frenemies, a daffy Disney TV movie that aired in 2012, is a tween favorite, as is the book on which it was based. One story line centers on two BFFs—best friends forever, in case you spent the past decade on a dark retreat—who are coeditors of a “geek-chic” teen website. They find themselves locked in bloody battle for a coveted magazine internship, until the winner decides that friendship is more important than a career opportunity. “If you really care about your friend,” she blogs, “anyone can overcome being frenemies.” A nice sentiment, one we hope that the young will carry into adulthood, as few friendships at any age are 100 percent symmetrical, with resources, success, and happiness equally distributed at all times.
When a friend told me she had found out she has enough money in her retirement accounts to quit work indefinitely— or forever—and travel, go on extended retreat, or do whatever she fancies, I was momentarily blinded to how much I love her. I wanted to push her into that crevasse in the Alps. Instead, I smiled thinly and said, “How wonderful for you!” And once the inner tempest subsided, I meant it. In truth, my friend is not the object of my envy. The real object is the freedom her situation affords her—something I desperately long for—and the opportunity to do the things she has dreamed of. I don’t wish for her nest egg to go south or her dreams to go up in smoke. I wish for her what we all want: to be happy, healthy, secure, and fulfilled.
Nothing poisons relationships like envy, which taints envier and envied alike. To be envied is to be a target of both covetousness and hostility. Not that there aren’t people who get a charge out of being envied for whatever assets they possess. To some, being envied is a status symbol, a sign of having arrived. Sex in the City, the TV series that defined female friendship in the late ’90s, popularized the second definition offrenemy: the false friend or acquaintance who is cordial and complimentary, even fawning, to your face, then cuts you to ribbons when you turn your back. This is the classic snake in the woodpile, a fixture of workplaces, college dorms, and social media. Sometimes the frenemy hides envy under teasing or “constructive” criticism, throwing us off balance and eroding our confidence. Shakespeare was a master at exposing the machinations of the envious. Think of Cassius recruiting his cohort to plot against Caesar, or Iago spreading rumors to undo Othello.
A male friend told me he thought envy in the workplace was largely a female phenomenon. (Guess he skipped Shakespeare 101.) I didn’t buy it. Perhaps, I suggested, it’s just that men are more passive-aggressive in the way they express it. But regardless of how overtly or covertly envy is expressed, it seriously impedes honest and loving exchange.
Sometimes feeling one-down is so painful that the envier withdraws from a relationship altogether. A woman who gained fame as a journalist, then even more when she married her newspaper’s editor, was genuinely perplexed when her success seemed to alienate her friends rather than draw them to her. “You’d think they’d be happy for me,” she said. Well, no, not necessarily. The Greek playwright Aeschylus gave voice to the issue 2,500 years ago, in a speech he wrote for the king in his play Agamemnon:
It’s not in every man’s nature to admire another man’s good luck without envying him at the same time. When the poison of envy attacks the heart of the envious it doubles his pain and he himself is weighed down by his own misfortune when he sees another man’s good fortune.
Envy is as old as Cro-Magnon man, but the triggers change by the minute. These days, social media are high on the list. While proponents tout the virtues of networking 24/7, evidence is mounting that for a sizeable chunk of Facebook users alone, following others decreases their life satisfaction and, for some, results in depression. Researchers in Germany found that fully a third of the Facebook users they studied reported that spending time on the social networking site left them feeling frustrated and angry. The primary source of those negative feelings? Envy.
Facebook sets the stage for envy with its endless opportunities to compare ourselves to others. Metrics on the number of friends, likes, and birthday greetings posted on other people’s walls can send us into a tailspin of unfavorable comparison. The posts that trigger envy the most, the German study found, fall into three broad categories—travel and leisure, social interaction, and happiness. That covers just about everything we could wish for in life. Not surprisingly, research has found that “passive” users of social media—those who follow others’ activities closely without posting anything about their own—are the most likely to feel envious. I get it. If your own life offline is disappointing, then the fancy trips, job promotions, and celebrations of people who seem fully engaged in life are painful reminders of what you lack.
Envy is insatiable, a hungry ghost. Once indulged, it never stops, a snowball gathering more of itself as it rolls downhill. So if I can’t get what I envy others for, then maybe I will feel better if they lose what they have. Social neuroscientists studying the effect of schadenfreude on the brain set up a mock Yankees–Red Sox game, then hooked up devoted fans to an MRI. They found that seeing your friend’s baseball team lose lights up the same pleasure center that lights up when your team wins. That’s not been my experience, and those were just lab results, but they support the prevailing view of envy as predicated on lack, on there not being enough of the good things in life to go around.
“The thinking is that there’s something you have that I don’t have, and I have to get it,” says Marcy Vaughn, a senior student of the Bon master Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and a founding teacher in The Three Doors meditation program, as well as a psychotherapist in private practice. If life is viewed as a zerosum game, then you have to lose for me to gain. Envy in this view is not an emotion so much as a basic survival instinct. “But Buddhism is not about survival,” Vaughn points out. “It’s about flourishing.”
So how do we calm the angry beast of envy so we can flourish? “Rejoicing [in the well-being of others] is the best remedy for jealousy and envy,” Lama Zopa tells us. “Rejoicing does not depend on material or physical actions—it can be done while you are working, eating, or sleeping. It can be done at any time, and it is such a simple way to create good karma.”
So smart, so logical. So what’s my problem? Why does envy seem to hang around like the smell of old fish? Is a quick hit of positivity enough to disperse it? For me, probably not.
“The first thing to understand,” Vaughn suggests, “is that envy is impermanent. No matter how convincing the appearance, it is an illusion fed by the imagination of a self who lacks. Hearing this can encourage us to explore envy and discover the transitory nature of this illusion. But we must also be present for the one who is generating envy.
“In Dzogchen practice,” Vaughn continues, “we look with nonconceptual awareness at the sense of self that is experiencing lack, and when our looking is steady enough, the thoughts and sensations that generate the sense of lack cease because they are not being fed. Remaining present in this sense of openness—of nakedness without the clothing of a familiar sense of self—we can experience the natural warmth of presence, of simply being. This warmth easily gives rise to taking joy in the success of others, the antidote to envy. This joy naturally emerges when what has previously occupied the space of our being—the drama of envy as well as the driver of that drama, the self’s imagined lack— releases its spell, and we experience a sense of being rich in positive qualities that naturally radiates out to others.”
As I practice this, there will be backsliding, I know. (Don’t you just once want to see the person who has it all slip on one of life’s banana peels?) Good intentions alone won’t release us completely from envy any more than money could buy our way out. Even the rich and famous are vulnerable to envy. For them, the latest form seems to be FOMO, or fear of missing out. (“What? You were invited to fly to Davos on David Geffen’s plane, and I wasn’t?”)
While Buddhism suggests mudita, or rejoicing in others’ good fortune, as an antidote to envy, and Dzogchen offers a practice to realize natural joy, psychology suggests gratitude for what we have. We all have gifts. We all have buddhanature. So why dwell on envy, friendvy, frenemies, enmity, jealousy, and the like. As the saying goes, Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.
And then forget the self.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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