I was in a Kundalini yoga workshop when I learned what envy really was. We were invited to turn to the person on the mat next to us and share a negative feeling we were having that day.
“Well … it’s my best friend…,” I began. “She has a job where she is really making a difference in the world. She’s going to Patagonia next winter to hang out with shamans. Her boyfriend just proposed to her. She grows her own food and is an amazing cook. She’s fun and funny and sexy and beautiful and smart….”
“So what’s the problem?” asks my partner, looking confused.
My answer: “I … envy her.”
The green-headed monster, envy, is made up of feelings of pain because of others’ qualities, achievements, or possessions. It’s a complex emotion and one that, according to philosopher Bertrand Russell, is among the most potent causes of unhappiness. And, with social media upping our propensity to view the great qualities, achievements, and possessions of others, it’s no surprise that envy is increasing.
Yes, we often try to blame the other person for making us feel bad: “Oh, another humble brag from Karen!” But often what we are masking is our own feeling of envy, and the subsequent shame or guilt that comes with it. In a 2013 study of Facebook users, researchers found one in three people felt worse after visiting Facebook because of envy. The biggest trigger was holiday photographs; second was social interaction on the site as users compared their own popularity on the platform to that of their friends.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can actually turn envy into joy and gain a greater understanding of our feelings in five steps:
1. Understand Your Desires
What does your envy tell you about your own desires?
Envy can actually be turned into an incredible learning experience. Do we envy our sister for having a job she loves? Well, that’s probably because we would like to have a job we love. If we envy our best friend for her vacation to Patagonia, it’s a likely sign that we are hankering for a vacation to Patagonia ourselves, or somewhere similar. It’s obvious—our envy can start to give us helpful insights into our unfulfilled desires—when we are prepared to take a closer look.
So what if, rather, we transformed the very thing that pained us into becoming our source of inspiration? We could turn that energy into something not only positive, but active.
2. Reframe Your Thinking
Change your perspective: Transform your envy of someone into inspiration, or motivation.
It’s great to understand your unfulfilled desires, but sitting around just thinking about them won’t make you happy. But at least with this knowledge we can now we can begin to reframe our envy. Life is not a zero-sum game. Our sister having a job she loves does not mean we will not have a job we love. A phrase that is often repeated to teenage girls prone to bullying and being bullied serves as a reminder of this point: Calling someone else ugly does not make you more beautiful. And envy is this—in reverse. Someone’s joy does not detract from your joy. And, even better, joy actually creates joy. We all know this—smile and the world smiles with us.
So what if, rather, we transformed the very thing that pained us into becoming our source of inspiration? We could turn that energy into something not only positive, but active. An old school friend just won the Pulitzer Prize? Let it inspire you to write more. Someone with a happy marriage? Fantastic. Let it inspire you to nurture a happy relationship. Empower envy to allow you to bring even more joy into the world. What these cases of envy also demonstrate is that the possibility of fulfilling our desires is very real—because someone else has already paved the way.
3. Practice Gratitude
Reframing your thinking leads to the next step: Being grateful. Someone else has already blazed a trail that you can now follow. How kind! Someone else put you in touch with your deep desires. How wonderful!
We will likely never know the pains a person took to be able to achieve whatever it is that we envy. Who knows the difficult relationships that someone endured before landing a happy marriage? And who can truly understand the long hours of study or work or the struggle that someone faced to land a dream job? The one who paved the way. Practice gratitude toward this person. If it helps, you can always start with rejoicing in the happiness of someone you don’t envy first.
4. Cultivate Happiness
And that brings us to the final goal: mudita. In Buddhism it is one of The Four Immeasurables and it is the opposite of envy. Mudita is finding joy in the happiness of others. That can seem an impossible task when we are feeling pain, but little by little we might begin to cultivate happiness for the person we envy. At first it may be for what we have learned, but with practice we can shift this to be unselfish joy. With time we will start to feel joy at another’s joy. It’s a goal worth aiming for. As the Dalai Lama says, “If we derive happiness from the happiness of others, we have several billion more opportunities to be happy.”
5. Have Self-Compassion
The biggest key to mudita, however, is that we must be compassionate with ourselves first. It is human nature to be envious. And it’s no wonder we beat ourselves up for feeling envious—within some religions, envy is labelled a deadly sin. How’s that for generating some shame and guilt? We should always address ourselves with kindness. If we don’t, the path to mudita will remain elusive to us.
Without compassion for myself that day in the workshop, I never would have learned what envy really was, because I would never have been able to share my thoughts and deep feelings out loud. Without kindness to myself, I never would have learned how to transform envy into joy for my best friend. And my best friend—who just happened to be the very person sitting on the yoga mat next to me listening—would never have learned how much she inspires me, and how grateful for I am for her.
Photo by Ali Kaukus
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, Wisdom, and Wellness channels on Wanderlust.com and YOGANONYMOUS. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and full-time dog walker of Millie.