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Overcoming Jealousy

The most important step in overcoming jealousy is taking action

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Imagine that you and your best friend covet the same dream job. Both of you spend many hours talking about how great things would be if you both got the job. After going through a grueling screening process, both of you manage to reach the final interview. However, when the final results are out, you discover that you didn't get the job, whereas your friend did.

How would you feel?

If we are honest, most of us would have to admit that we would feel more jealous than proud in this situation. Research by Tesser and his colleagues reveal a seemingly unfortunate aspect of human nature: jealousy is more intense when someone close to us does well in a domain in which we ourselves want to do well. So, if we are into dancing, we feel more jealous when someone close to us—e.g., our best friend or sibling, rather than a distant cousin or a stranger—is a better dancer than us. Interestingly, we don't feel jealous if someone close to us does well in a domain in which we are not that interested in doing well; if anything, we feel proud. For example, if our best friend is a famous rock climber and we are not into rock-climbing, we feel genuinely happy and even bask in the reflected glory of our friend's accomplishments. So, jealousy mainly happens when someone close (vs. distant) does better than us in a domain that is relevant to us.

Why do we feel that way? And should we feel that way?

The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. It is adaptive to feel jealous when someone close does well in a relevant domain. We have a better chance of surviving if we out-perform those close to us, and research has shown that people feel more motivated to out-perform others when we feel jealous and envious. For almost the entire history of our evolution as a species, we have lived in relatively small groups of 150 or so. This is the group of people with whom we shared, and therefore competed for, resources. Within this context, we garnered more of the resources (food, warmth, emotional intimacy) if we out-performed others on important domains (hunting, fighting, etc.). As such, we are instinctually motivated to be better than those close to us, and jealousy motivates us toward this goal.

Should we feel this way? The answer to this question is a little less straight-forward.

The present-day context in which we live, for most of us, is worlds removed from how we lived in the past. We now live in large cities in which we hardly know even our neighbors. Further, for most of us who live in nuclear (vs. joint) families, not only do we meet friends and relatives rarely (once a week, if that), even the meaning of "close circle" is questionable since our circles change so frequently with both geographical and career mobility. Thus, the idea of competing with close-others for resources is much less relevant now than it was in the past, and hence, it simply doesn't make sense to feel jealous of our close friends and relatives.

An even more important reason why feeling jealous of close-others doesn't make sense in the present-day context is that, for most of us, we have everything we need to survive. The typical Psychology Today reader does not struggle for food, clothing or shelter. If survival were an issue, it would make sense to out-perform others. If, instead, you were interested in thriving and flourishing, jealousy is, if anything, counter-productive.

Why is jealousy counter-productive? Because a critical determinant of success in the present-day is the ability to make others feel positive towards you. And others are more likely to feel positive towards you if they think that you are happy and proud—rather than depressed and jealous—to see them do well.

But, how does one overcome jealousy?

This is easier said than done, but an important first step is accepting that you feel jealous when someone close to you does well, rather than brushing the feeling under a carpet. Too many people I know will not accept feeling jealous, even when it is clear that they feel so. You may hide the fact from yourself, but others can easily see, both from your actions and facial expressions, when you feel jealous. So, it is better to acknowledge the feeling honestly (even if only to yourself). Doing so will allow you to turn your attention to ways of overcoming it.

The knowledge of why you feel jealous (namely, that you have been programmed by instinct to feel so), and of why the emotion is not just useless but is actually counter-productive in the present-day context should give you sufficient motivation to overcome jealousy, but this motivation alone is not enough.

The most important step in overcoming jealousy is taking action.

What does taking action entail? When a close friend, relative or colleague accomplishes something important, tell them that you are impressed—even if you have to swallow your ego to do so. If you feel that you can't meet the person face-to-face to do this—either because you are afraid that your jealousy might show or because you feel that the other person will explicitly look for signs of jealousy and this will make you self-conscious—then tell them over the telephone. Or shoot them an email. And if you feel up to it, you can even confess, as you congratulate them, that you can't help but feel jealous of their accomplishments! Trust me, being honest about your feelings with those who make you jealous will actually warm them up to you, rather than make them feel negative about you.

The main thing is to act in a way that you would have acted had you not felt jealous, but instead, had felt happy and proud. Findings show that we often infer our values, attitudes and opinions by observing our own behavior, which is why we feel happier when we force ourselves to smile or when we force ourselves to be altruistic even if we don't feel so. Likewise, we will infer that we are a more generous, giving and expansive person, a person capable of rising above petty competitiveness, when we force ourselves to congratulate others for their accomplishments even as we feel jealous.

Taking such action is guaranteed to improve your chances of success. The truth is, we depend on others, especially close-others, for our success. Specifically, our success depends on how far others will go to remove obstacles from our paths and in helping us toward our goals. Your chances of getting the next dream job depends even more critically on the references you get from others than on your technical qualifications. So, do yourself a huge favor by taking action to overcome jealousy.

A close friend, colleague, or relative is waiting for a call from you.

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