One of my friends is now in Europe, all his expenses paid by his employer. (Oh yeah, did I tell you that he went with his wife and they are paying all her expenses too?) Another friend just released a book which is well on its way to becoming a national best seller (see Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, by Dr. Enrico Gnaulati). I have two friends who just retired in their 50’s and will never have to worry about money again. So do you think I am happy for them? To be honest, the envious part of mind wants an all-expense paid trip to Europe with my family. I want to have a bestseller so I can retire and never have to worry about money again.
What do you envy? Do you envy your friend who can eat anything she wants and is still as skinny as a rail? How about the guy at work who used to report to you who was just promoted again? Or how about your friend who is (apparently) happily married and expecting her first baby and you have not had a good date in months (okay years)? Do you envy those people who have the Midas touch—everything they do turns to gold? We can envy anyone who has more (money, looks, happiness) than us; we can envy anyone who has less (body fat, bad luck, marital troubles) than us. The list of things that we can be envious about is as long as things in the world that we can possess or acquire or experience—but don’t. And the list is long.
Envy Happens! Envy is a basic human emotion—a state of mind to be exact. It is reflected in some of our earliest literature, for instance religious texts. In the well-known Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, the author of Genesis writes that eating of the forbidden fruit would make the couple like God. Embedded in this narrative is a story of envy. They envied God and who would not?—Which of us would not want to be described as all powerful; all knowing? But what really seemed to piss them off was that they needed God. According to British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, we are prone to envy anyone on whom we depend. Why? Because we are not all powerful and all knowing and we do in fact need others.
Envy unchecked is very destructive. Envy hates. Envy wants to hurt if not destroy the envied. This is also seen in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel. If you remember the story, Cain envied his brother Abel and as a result murdered him. Sometimes the expression of envy is huge; many wars have been started because one group wants what another group has. However, more often the expression of envy is more “civilized” showing up as resentment, backbiting and passive aggressive behaviors. And when we envy, there are often serious feelings of inferiority lurking in the shadows of our self-concept.
The opposite of envy is gratitude. Envy wants what others have, what others do and what others experience. Gratitude “wants” what we, in fact, have, do and experience. (You heard the expression: Do you have what you want or want what you have?) Gratitude accepts and appreciates—the “AA” of a healthy mindset. We are most centered when we accept who we are and what we have. However, it is not easy to be content when there is so much feedback out there showing us what we lack. It takes a mature mind to transcend an attitude of scarcity to have an attitude of gratitude. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with wanting to have more. But if you cannot be grateful with the good you currently possess—and yes there is good in our lives—then you can never be truly happy even if you possess the envied things. (We all know of celebrities who apparently have everything most people would ever want but live seemingly unhappy lives.)
I have struggled with envy my whole life. I grew up in a very poor family and often heard my father talk about all the rich people who had it easy. I still struggle with being content with what I have and where I am in life. However, as I have worked through issues in my own personal therapy and lately in my mindfulness practices, I find myself more content and yes—even at times grateful—for my life as it is now. I want more and will get it. But gratitude is not about the future; gratitude is about the NOW. So I choose to be happy for my friends who are retired at 50, traveling in Europe, and a successful author. I am truly glad for them, as I am glad for all the good things in my life. And I hope that you find that quiet, sober place in your mind and heart that appreciates what you have NOW this Thanksgiving and for the other 364 days of the year.
If you have a moment, please share with us what you find yourself envying and/or what you are personally grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving!