In Christianity, envy is one of the seven deadly sins. In Buddhist teaching, envy is closely related to the term irshya – a mental factor that’s considered detrimental or unwholesome. You may have heard this saying, “Envy is the thief of happiness”, or “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And modern research warns that envy can lead to depression and anxiety.
So if envy is the thief of happiness, what can we do to avoid its negative impacts in our lives? Press play on my latest podcast, or keep reading, to find out more about the cause of envy and the ways to transform it. I’ll give you some science-backed practices that will help retrain your mind to operate in ways that grow rather than diminish your mental strength and help you take back your happiness.
Living in the age of envy
So they say we’re living in the AGE of envy. Human beings have, of course, always felt envy. But now social media has created a world in which everyone seems to be happy, beautiful and living and flaunting their best life. And just to add to it, the images are often filtered, polished, and airbrushed.
We scroll through all these images of people smiling and posing. Showing off their new kitchen, their perfect holiday, their sculpted bodies, their adorable children and their great career wins. And what we tend to do is compare ourselves to these images of perfection and end up feeling like we’re falling short.
So what is envy exactly? It’s a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck. In other words, you see what someone else had and you not only wish you had it, but you resent them for having it.
Ethan Kross, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies the impact of social media on our wellbeing says, “envy is being taken to an extreme” on platforms like Facebook.
When we are constantly scrolling through images of these photoshopped lives, he says, “it exerts a toll on us the likes of which we have never experienced in the history of our species.”
Why we get caught in the grip of envy
The reason we tend to be so quick to compare ourselves to others is because of the way our minds have evolved. Back in caveman days, survival meant staying part of the group. Human beings didn’t last long by ourselves. If we were kicked out of the group, it wouldn’t be long before a predator, a warring tribe, illness or injury could take us down. So our survival depended on having the approval of the rest of the tribe. For this reason, our minds adapted to constantly check “Am I fitting in? Am I special? Am I doing anything that could get me rejected? Am I contributing enough? Am I attractive enough? Am I good enough?”
And it would constantly compare us to others to see if we are getting approval and acceptance, therefore able to stay in the tribe.
So we have this habit of constant comparison and approval-seeking deep in our primal conditioning. You’ve probably experienced how painful envy can be first hand, right? And how much it affects your mental well-being. Your feelings of envy don’t necessarily diminish the happiness of those you are envious of, but they do diminish your own peace of mind.
And what makes envy even harder, is that we don’t like to admit it or talk about it. It’s often a very private emotion. Sometimes we don’t even admit envy to ourselves. We’re ashamed to be feeling it.
Envy can take many forms:
- Criticism and put downs of other success
- Feelings of unworthiness, or
- Feelings of ill-will towards another person
It is also strongly correlated with depression. Numerous studies have shown strong links between envy and depression.
Two science-backed ways to take back our happiness
So what can we do to counter feelings of envy to protect our mental wellbeing and promote greater mental strength? Here are two profoundly helpful tips.
1. Reduce your exposure to envy
Reduce or limit your exposure to environments, habits and media that stoke the fires of envy within you. That may mean limiting your exposure to social media or to certain places, peer groups or other factors. That can be helpful, especially while you’re training in this new habit.
2. Practice sympathetic joy
Buddhism offers us a practice to totally retrain the habit of envy within us. It’s called the practice of sympathetic joy. Here’s how you do it.
- Every time you feel envy, first take a breath and gently bring the focus to the sensation of envy in your body and name it mentally, “Envy is here.” Give yourself some compassion. This mental labelling of an emotion allows us to step back from it, unhook from it. That way, the emotion no longer has a grip on us. It also gives us the space to make a new choice about how we want to be in that moment.
- Switch your focus from the envy of the other person to happiness and appreciation for this person’s good fortune. Mentally wish them well. Explore whether it is true that deep down you really do want others to be happy? And if that is the case then take a few moments to connect with that truth within you. Take a moment to be happy for them. Enjoy how nice it is to see someone doing well, happy, healthy (rather than in pain, fear or stress).
- Finally, take a moment to reflect on all the good fortune you already have in your life – and to feel gratitude for it. Food in the cupboard, a person who cares for you, water in the taps, roof over your head, fun times you have had, wins you’ve experienced, success and love in your own life.
In this way you will find yourself filled with a sense of abundance and happiness for both yourself and them. Instead of laying down neural pathways of lack, resentment and hostility, you rewire new patterns in. You lay down new empowering and uplifting pathways of feeling abundant, feeling grateful, feeling connected and feeling joy.
Your mental strength practice this week
So this is your mental strength practice for this week, transform your moments of envy into moments of strength, love and happiness. The next time you find yourself caught in envy see if you can acknowledge it. And then, shift your focus to being happy for the abundance and beauty not only in their life, but in your life too.
I hope you find this helpful. Wishing you a wonderful week. As always, thank you for your practice.
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