- Life is competitive, and it is easy to feel like you are missing out.
- Anxiety is a powerful survival reaction that evolved to be very unpleasant. Pursuing happiness is an attempt to counteract it.
- When the pursuit inevitably fails, we may become envious of others who seem to be happier. Health may be adversely affected.
- Learning to appreciate what you have, with or without pain, is a learned skill that can paradoxically yield happiness.
What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary —property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life —don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why?
Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart —and prize above all those who love you and wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that is how you will be imprinted on their memory.1
Your body is assessing your circumstances every second in order to direct your internal functions and external actions to optimize your chances of survival. It is at the core of staying alive for every species of living creatures. Part of this process is assessing what is safe vs dangerous, as we are all competing for resources.
Humans have yet more to consider in that we uniquely possess language and consciousness. Research has demonstrated that mental/emotional pain (danger) is processed in a similar manner to physical pain.2 Our mental perceptions of threat are even more problematic than external threats in that we cannot escape our thoughts.
Unpleasant repetitive thoughts (URT’s) , the research term for this phenomenon, are interpreted by your nervous system as a threat, and your body is given signals to secrete stress hormones, increase metabolism (fuel consumption), and fire up the immune system. Humans have a name for this intentionally disruptive state, “anxiety.” If this state is sustained, the tissues of your own body will suffer damage, and you’ll develop illnesses and disease.
In an effort to deal with unpleasant thoughts, we pursue activities to distract and feel better about ourselves. In other words, we often use external circumstances to quell our inner voices. These voices are arising unconsciously from our need to survive, and many of their particulars are based on faulty programming from our parents and society. Using our rational brain to deal with them can’t work.
We are all familiar with the concept of the fear of missing out. Since anxiety is a necessary gift needed for survival (as unpleasant as it is), we’ll keep searching for ways to counteract it and feel better. As a result, we will look at other’s successes as something that might help us out, but if we feel we can’t similarly attain it, we may become envious of what they seem to have. “Why are they happy and I am not?” There is not a logical endpoint to such thinking.
Additionally, research has demonstrated that the pursuit of happiness actually creates sadness. It is called the “ironic effect.”3 You may have the best of intentions, but your unconscious brain, while trying to protect you, focuses on ways you might not be happy. Again, since it is such a huge mismatch, the unconscious brain overrides happiness. Similar research also shows that if you pursue being sad, you’ll end up being buoyantly happy.
As the attempts at achieving happiness eventually and miserably fail, you may become envious and wonder what others have that you don’t. Such thinking can interfere with almost every aspect of life. But happiness and envy are not compatible emotions.
There are two basic types of envy. One is being unhappy with another’s success, whether it is a friend or competitor. The other is silently rejoicing when someone you are envious of suffers a loss, and emotional experience known as “schadenfreude.”4 Both types of envy elicit feelings of guilt, because we know we shouldn’t feel this way. But if you try to suppress the feeling, it only becomes worse. The problem is magnified if you believe the person you envy didn’t originally deserve his or her success.
In light of current neuroscience research, we now understand the impact of sustained frustration on the body’s chemistry, resulting in physical and mental symptoms. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out that being happy with what you have is the essence of living a good life. If we spend a lot of energy thinking about what we don’t have, we’ll remain agitated, which interferes with your quality of life.
Envy and Pain
I’ve had as much of a challenge with envy as anyone throughout my entire life. I came from a chaotic and abusive household, and it seemed as if everyone had a life that was better than mine. I wanted more friends, accomplishments, adventures, family, and the list went on.
What is now obvious in retrospect was that i "inherited" an inclination to envy—that pattern of thinking was pervasively modeled in the family I grew up in. My mother had a pattern of thinking that our family’s situation was never good enough. She would become unhappy to the point that our whole family would move to another town to start over. The cycle would begin again, and she would complain about any and everything. By the time I was 18 years old, we had lived in 12 different houses. After I refused to move from my high school area in Napa Valley, my parents kept on moving. It’s clear where I learned this behavior.
It all become much more intense after I developed chronic pain. I was envious of others not being in pain. Why me? Then it seemed that everyone had a better social and family life than I did. As the envy deepened, I withdrew even more. than before. Although, I wanted to re-engage with friends, my fear of rejection became almost a phobia. Holidays were particularly unpleasant. It seemed like every person in the world was having a better time than I was. Of all the terrible experiences I endured, the loneliness was the most crushing. I have undergone many phases of healing. However, I have never forgotten the intensity of the loneliness and envy.
The Way to Love
The solution doesn’t lie in not being envious. The key to dealing with it is to become keenly aware of it and the impact on your quality of life. I incorporated Anthony DeMello’s book, The Way to Love,5 into the healing process. He defines love as awareness. He’s clear on the consequences of being attached to your circumstance for your peace of mind. You can't help but be envious of what others have that you don't. Awareness will create a separation from the energy drain of always wanting more. Eventually it will lose its power. Appreciating what you have, even if you are in pain, is a learned skill that must be nurtured.
Although, it’s a daily, minute-to-minute exercise in awareness, not being caught in the quicksand of envy has been a remarkably freeing experience. Try it. The starting point is becoming aware of your deeply embedded patterns of pursuing happiness.
1. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
2. Eisenberger NI, et al. An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection. Pain (2006); 126:132-138.
3. Wegner DM. The seed of our undoing. Psychological Science Agenda, January/February, 1999, 10-11.
4. Schadenfreude: Understanding Pleasure at the Misfortune of Others. Wilco W. van Dijk, Jaap W. Ouwerkerk; Cambridge University Press, Jul 24, 2014.
5. de Mello, Anthony. The Way to Love. Bantam Doubleday, New York, NY, 1991.