By August 19, 2005Blog

Some of the research on happiness has shown that though more money above a certain level does not correlate much with more happiness, having more money than your neighbor does.

And having less money than your neighbor is correlated with lower happiness.

Most recently there is a study in the news by sociologists Glenn Firebaugh and Laura Tach, called “Relative Income and Happiness: Are Americans on a Hedonic Treadmill?”

They found that physical health was the most important factor in the happiness of their subjects, but their relative income was second most important.

Their research discovered that differences between people in health, education, and other “correlates of happiness” didn’t matter nearly as much as a disparity in income within the same age group or “cohort.” Firebaugh and Tach concluded: “The higher the income of others in one’s age group, the lower one’s happiness.”

There are different aspects to these findings. In part it might reflect one’s regret for not fulfilling one’s own potential, disappointment in how one has dealt with opportunities, etc. But the central issue, I believe, is envy.

There is nothing mysterious about this. The role of envy is central to human nature. The 10th Commandment warns against it, primitive – and not so primitive – societies have superstitious charms to protect against “the evil eye.” We all know about the green monster of envy. I doubt that any one of us has not fed this monster or been harmed by it at one time or another.

So now we have research clearly showing that indulging this monster can tangibly decrease your happiness.

Let’s look at some of the effects that indulging in envy can have on you:

Envy turns your human neighbor into a non-human object. When we envy another person, we are not seeing that person for who they are, we are seeing them for what they have. They may have money or possessions or life circumstances that I want and don’t have.

And when I think of the person, it is those things that I will see, it is those things that I will think of as they speak; and throughout whatever interaction I have with that person, some part of my consciousness will be focused on those things.

Envy presumes your own impotence. Envy focuses you on what you don’t think you can have. When was the last time you made something happen that you firmly believed you couldn’t do? It happens, but it’s pretty darned rare.

I love the saying, “Be bold and great forces will come to your aid.” Envy implies disbelief in yourself, and separates you from your boldness, and any great forces.

It encourages an external locus of control. Envy puts the focus for your life outside of yourself. When you envy, you are telling yourself that because this person out there has something, that means I cannot have it. And I cannot be happy if they have it and I do not.

Envy breeds malevolence. When you envy, you are not happy for the success of your neighbor, you are resentful of it. The sentiment, if it were really stated in full, would be something like, “if I can’t have this, I don’t want them to have it.”

Envy weakens your capacity for benevolence. To be truly kind, generous, and loving toward another, you must be able and happy to see them and appreciate them for who they are, and to want the best for them. You cannot possibly do this congruently while indulging in any of the above.

Given that you’re human, and so are likely to feel envy at some point or other in your life, how can you deal with such strong feelings, which have been a part of human nature and wreaking havoc since the beginning of time?

There are several steps:

Don’t indulge the feelings. Contrary to the therapeutic philosophies of the 60s and 70s, your feelings are not wise, they are not guides to be consulted in opposition to your clear thinking. They are potentially useful information, to be noticed, considered, sometimes expressed, but you should always:

Integrate these feelings with thought. As you notice the feelings, think something like the following:

What am I attracted to here? What are the possessions or circumstances that I see this person enjoying that I would like to have for myself? Use this information to clarify your own desires and goals, making the desire personal to you, and not focused on the person who has what you would like.

Consider whether this desire is a good thing, something that would improve your life and make a benevolent impact upon the world, or a bad thing that would do you or others harm if pursued. If it is a good thing, move on to the next step.

If it is a bad thing, identify it clearly, look it squarely and honestly in the eye, and as best you can, banish it from your “to do” list. (It may be a good but impossible thing, like wishing you were forty years younger. In this case, go hunting for what you are grateful for in your life, past and present. This won’t make you younger, but it may take off some of the edge.)

What do I believe about my own abilities that I am feeling the emotion of envy? How could I think about myself differently, so that I might feel something more like inspiration and ambition to create what I desire for myself? What support do I need to enable me to feel that I could actually move toward what I want?

What you can do this week to effectively move yourself toward reaching that goal? This assumes that you have reframed your envy into inspiration and ambition, and then used this to identify a benevolent desire and goal.

It doesn’t matter how far you move toward the goal, it is the direction, and not the mileage, that matters. Because envy is a stance of stagnation and impotence, any move in a positive direction toward what you desire will work to dissipate that envy. You cannot be effective and helpless at the same time.

Repeat this every week from now on until it’s habitual and envy is not.

If you feel envy, find within that envy the seeds of your own ambition. Identify and clarify your goals, and find the support you need to move toward them effectively and benevolently.

Then kindly thank your neighbor for the inspiration.