We’re taught to never envy. We’re taught to never compare ourselves to others. Platitudes and cliches tell us to eliminate this pernicious pattern from our psyche. Teddy Roosevelt tells us that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The Bible even outlines a commandment that we shalt not covet our neighbor’s livestock or our neighbor’s wife.
As troubling as lumping those two “possessions” together seems, both aphorisms express a highly valuable nugget of wisdom. Whether for your own well-being or by divine decree, comparing yourself, your life, your possessions with others leads brings only discontent.
Or does it? Is there a different, more positive utility to envy?
Our interpretation and perception of our world define our reality. Every seemingly negative emotion can also be used for good. Emotions are analogous to our five senses. They give us (more or less) raw data about the world. We do not have to believe or act upon our initial interpretation. Strong emotions can feel overwhelming, even shocking, and allowing that initial state of response to carry forward is unhelpful at best, disastrous at worst.
While I will never define envy as good, can we find value in our feelings of envy? Surely, envy must have some adaptive advantage or else we would not be capable of feeling it.
Like all emotions, we can learn to use envy as a tool. The next time you feel envious toward something or someone, ask what it might be telling you. Envy can reveal our deepest desires. Envy can reveal a piece of the puzzle of who we would like to become. We cannot completely know ourselves in a vacuum. Our surroundings and the people who inhabit them can serve as a mirror to reflect back pieces of ourselves that might otherwise remain obscure.
So, the next time you feel envious about something you encounter, dive into this exercise to let it teach you all it can. You can simply ponder the following questions. I recommend journaling on them, especially for the stronger cases.
What specifically am I envious of? You do not want every aspect of another person’s life, so get specific.
Is this an innate physical quality such as height, hair color, or breast size? Is it a personality trait or aspect of their demeanor such as openness, empathy, or wittiness? Is it a quality that they have worked to achieve such as knowledge in a particular field, a high salary, or large muscles? Or is it simply a possession?
Each of the above answers requires a different follow-up. We can do very little in regards to innate qualities. These are truly the domain where “comparison is the thief of joy.” You do not choose your physical make-up, yet neither did anyone else.
While our personalities are largely innate, they are also adaptable. You can work to cultivate more patience and empathy. You can practice smiling more. This type of envy tends to be a particularly ruthless mirror. While you might feel envious about an aspect of another person’s nature, you are actually feeling a desire to improve a reciprocal quality in yourself such as cynicism or impatience. This is a particularly potent journal prompt.
Envy for achieved qualities, like knowledge or strength, serve as motivation for the path that leads to them. Rather than dwelling someone’s seeming superiority, look beneath to the work required to achieve it. Imagine the years of study, the hours in the gym, and the sacrifice of many other things in pursuit of their goal. Rather than ask, “Why don’t I have that,” ask yourself if you are willing to makes the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. If that answers is “yes,” then other people can serve as examples of what lies at the end of that path. Celebrate their work and know that you are capable of something similar.
The final flavor of envy for physical possessions is easy to solve if you really must. Unless extremely cost prohibitive, you can have just about anything you want. This, of course, comes with the trade-off that you cannot spend those resources elsewhere. When confronted with envy over possessions or even the lusting after some new gadget I try to remember that everything I currently own was once in the box labeled “Things that I Long For.” I dwell instead on how amazing the coat I already have is and how many years it has succeeded in keeping me warm. I also keep in mind one of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau:
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
Comparison is not innately unhealthy. We all have goals and changes that we would like to make in ourselves and in our lives. We need an accurate gauge with which to measure progress. Comparison can provide that measuring stick, we just need to choose it carefully.
Comparison with others can never provide an accurate measure. No matter how well we think we understand another person and their life circumstances, we can never have the full story.
A perfect example came to me the other day. My partner and I have live in a van full time since March. It was an intentional choice that provides us with extremely low overhead cost and thus more freedom to chose our jobs, lifestyle, and location. It has obvious trade-offs such as very little storage space, no toilet or shower, an very little personal space. While this lifestyle is right for us right now, it constantly wears on us as well. Alone time is hard to come by and we have to be extremely intentional with our choices.
We share a bit of our travels and lifestyle online. The other day a distant friend of Marika’s sent her a message to say how proud she was of us for taking the leap that we did and how amazing our life must be. We received that message while both sick, huddled under two comforters and several warm layers, watching snow accumulate on the outside of our little van. Our life did not feel terribly amazing, yet to an outsiders perspective, was worthy of envy.
This is an extreme example, but the fact that we cannot possibly have a complete picture of someone else’s life expresses itself in much more subtle ways. Even those who seem to have it all figured out have occasional to constant negative internal dialogue. We all do. Even the most rich, beautiful, and athletic amongst us question their own path and lust after aspects of someone else’s life.
Regardless of the details of your life, the longing and lusting is constant. Comparison with others is a dead-end.
Comparison provides a productive tool only when we choose the measuring stick appropriately. Knowing that we can never accurately compare to others, we can use only ourselves and our personal progress as a measurement standard.
Even when looking only at our personal circumstances, we must be intentional in how we measure.
Fitness and strength training provides the greatest temptation to compare yourself to everyone around you. Even when avoiding this obvious pitfall, you can still set yourself up for discontent when only looking forward toward your goals. It is normal to have goals. Yet, measuring progress only against these desires or perceived “should” abilities brings only disappointment. We feel discontent in every instant until the eventual moment when we finally cross that self-established threshold.
Looking forward toward a goal can provide motivation, especially if that goal is not too far away - a case for setting short-term goals. However, we can use an even more positive method to gauge our personal progress.
We need to understand the difference between gap and gain.
Gap is the part of journey left in front of you, this distance between you and your goal. Constantly looking forward toward a goal causes us to fixate on this gap. It shows the work yet to come but also represents the extent to which we currently fall short. Focus here brings feelings of inadequacy.
Looking in our rear-view toward the ground we have already covered shows us how much we have already gained. A quick flip through an old workout journal shows that our current warm-up weights were once PRs. Even before they were PRs, they were goals. Sure, we might not have hit our new goals, but we can revel in how the numbers that once elated us, we now move through without thinking twice.
Striving for progress is an explosive force. It can drive us to greatness or blow up in a our face. When understood, harnessed, and directed it can push us to accomplish enormous goals. When unchecked, drive and ambition can stunt the humility required for true growth.
I have a personal manta: Always something to work on, always something to celebrate. It is a reminder that the most important piece of fulfillment and growth comes from finding a balance between a quest for progress, contentment with where you are, and celebration for how far you have come.
Set goals. Look to others for example and inspiration. But never forgot that you’re journey is your own. Comparison can show you where a path leads but it cannot be trusted to measure progress.