How to overcome envy when the grass looks greener
Though we know envy to be one of the seven deadly sins, we are programmed to compare ourselves to others — whether by nature or conditioning. So how do we begin to overcome envy?
Comparing bubbles with bubbles
During the lockdown, I’ve been going for evening strolls. I wait until the sun is just about to set so I can catch the last of the golden hour. Walking around the neighbourhood is like the real-life version of scrolling through social media; a snapshot of people’s lives.
I steal a look inside these cosy bubbles. What are they watching on TV? How big is their TV? What’s for dinner? I can smell what’s cooking. A streetful of culinary aromas amalgamates in the evening air. I admire people’s taste in decor, make assumptions based on the cars they drive, and cast a sideways glance at recycling bins overflowing with wine bottles.
I wonder what the people inside are like. Are they young or old, lonely or crowded, cheerful or worried? How do our own lives and circumstances stack up against our neighbours’?
Is the grass is always greener?
Proverb: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
When someone is not satisfied with their own lot in life and always assumes that there are better things in other places. […] It expresses the idea that people often think a different set of circumstances would bring them greater joy; however, the phrase is often used in the context of reminding people that this is not usually the case.Source
This age-old proverb describes an aspect of envy that many of us have felt at some point in our life. Envy has likely been a human trait since the dawn of the species, and its traits have endured until today.
Though we know envy to be one of the seven deadly sins, we are programmed to compare ourselves to others — whether by nature or conditioning. We follow each other’s lives under the guise of open admiration. But there is always that underlying sense of green-eyed jealousy, gnawing away at us.
As children, we revere our heroes. As adults, we may rejoice in others’ success, yet it reminds us of our own perceived failures and inadequacies. Wealth, status, and achievement are regarded in comparison to our own accomplishments.
The stories we tell ourselves
We tell ourselves stories about how others came about their success, and how it must have been “so much easier for them”. We may envy the rich. “It’s all very well for them,” we say. “They got a lucky break.” We may scoff at so-called influencers and say, “They’ve never worked a day in their life”. Attractive people simply won the gene lottery. Or, perhaps, they paid for their good looks. Even better, somebody else paid for them.
According to psychologytoday.com: The word “envy” derives from the Latin “invidia”, which means “non-sight.” In the Divine Comedy, Dante has the envious labouring under cloaks of lead, their eyelids sewn shut with leaden wire. This etymology suggests that envy arises from, or results in, a form of blindness.
So what are we actually observing here, through these green-tinted glasses? Are we getting a true snapshot of others’ success? We can’t possibly know what people are thinking and feeling.
Joy, contentment and satisfaction cannot be measured by one’s net worth. They aren’t reflected in the make of a car, the number of followers, or the list of accolades. We can’t compare our personal values with superficial observations.
Envy alone (in the absence of external action) takes nothing away from the success of another, yet it crushes and corrodes the individual that succumbs to the green-eyed monster.
How do we overcome envy?
Is equality the answer? For the grass to all be the same shade of green? Surely not. Even with an equal distribution of wealth, good looks, intelligence, influence and status, we will always find something else to compare.
Three steps to overcoming our innate feelings of envy
Firstly, we can begin to overcome envy by realising that things are not always as they appear from the outside, whether by perception or deception.
Secondly, we can understand that acknowledging and celebrating another’s success does not diminish our own. Total altruism may be challenging at times, but we can strive to offer empathy and encouragement.
Finally, let’s shift our focus to inside our own bubble, to the sphere that’s under our control. Introspective practices, such as acceptance, gratitude and abundance, will go a long way towards finding a sense of contentment and fulfilment.
Practices to try
- Ground yourself through breathing exercises, yoga, walking around the neighbourhood or sitting with your cat. Practise acceptance, as you are, without judgement or limitations. Now extend that feeling to your surroundings and those you care about.
- Make time to explore the emotions and internal narratives that lead you to feel envious of what others have. What’s behind these feelings? Getting to the roots will help to overcome envy and the need for comparison.
- Take a look around and notice three things you are grateful for, that please you or make your life easier.
- Know it’s OK to appreciate and admire what others have, without creating a sense of deficiency in your own life.
- Offer a compliment to a friend or loved one about something you admire. Whether it’s their achievement, idea, or possession, your thoughtful words may brighten their day.
- Identify (at least) one aspect to your character that you believe is a valuable attribute.
- Write down one thing you achieved in the past week. Something you’re proud of or relieved to have done. Now, try identifying something from the past quarter, or year to date. If you can think of more things, that’s great! Reflecting on your past accomplishments can boost your mood and confidence even more than those future goals you haven’t yet started to tackle.
- Lastly, time for some future planning. Think about what would bring more joy into your life. Training towards a goal? Learning a new skill? Joining a community group? Purchasing a trinket you’ve had your eye on? Upgrading your vacuum? (That was mine!) Let yourself be guided by the feeling these things would bring, rather than being driven by comparison and one-upmanship. Overcome envy by following the path to your own goals, without straying towards the temptation of what others have on display.
Is the grass is always greener?
We can never know what life is truly like on the other side of the fence. But we can be sure of this: The grass is always greener where you water it.