How envy can help you find more joy
“Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Teddy Roosevelt, and in many ways, he was right.
Studies have shown that comparing ourselves to others on social media, particularly those who we see has having “more” of something than we do, can damage our self-esteem. We fixate on what we lack, rather than what we have. When we’re consumed with envy, it’s hard to see the joy that’s right in front of us.
But what if there’s another side to envy — one that doesn’t diminish our joy, but actually helps us find it? Yes, as an emotion, envy feels terrible: a combination of inadequate, disappointed, resentful, and ungrateful all at once. (They don’t call it a green-eyed monster for nothing.) But dig into it a little, and underneath that awful feeling is a clue.
We envy people who have something that we want but don’t have. It might might be money or property, or something intangible like a relationship or a talent or even a vague feeling, like being carefree. Many of us brush envy aside because we believe we’re supposed to be grateful for what we have, or because we fear the disappointment of admitting we want something we’re not sure we’ll be able to attain. But if we take the fear and judgment out of it, what lies at the root of envy is simply desire.
A homework assignment: Experimenting with envy
I tried a thought experiment the other day. I’d invite you to try this too. I scrolled through Instagram and rather than trying to suppress my envy, I paid attention to all the times I felt a pang of it. When did I covet someone else’s house? Their three-week jaunt through Europe? Their effortless and fun wardrobe? Their ability to look cool and not totally awkward making reels?
For each one, I tried to pinpoint the desire behind the envy. Sometimes it was as simple as “Well, it would be nice to have that kind of money! I’d love to be able to buy that fancy wallpaper without thinking about the 15 other things I’d have to give up to make it happen.” Sometimes it was deeper. Not so much a person’s clothes, but the creativity of their style. Not so much the fancy trip, but the ease they seemed to have in the pictures. And sometimes what I learned was surprising. There was one reel I would readily admit was goofy, but I envied the way the creator was just putting herself out there, unafraid to be her dorky self. It seemed strange to covet “goofiness,” but it made me realize that I often put so much pressure on myself to appear polished and like I know what I’m doing — goofiness feels impossible. Letting loose in a world where you feel like you always have to be in control? That is definitely something I envy.
What this exercise taught me is that I’d gotten so good at avoiding the feeling of envy, but in the process I’d clamped down on my desires. I’d tell myself things like: You’re focused on more important things than clothes. Or: Being rich seems nice, but money changes people. Or: You don’t know what their relationship is really like. Maybe it’s terrible!
These scripts were designed to help me feel better about not having certain things, but if you read them closely, you can see that what they’re really doing is judging the desire.
- You’re focused on more important things than clothes. Translation: Caring about clothes is superficial. If you care about clothes, you’re not a “serious” person.
- Being rich seems nice, but money changes people. Translation: It’s bad to want money. Money is a corrupting influence that will bring out the worst in you.
- You don’t know what their relationship is really like. Maybe it’s terrible! Translation: People often aren’t as happy as they seem in relationships, and you’ll feel better about not being in a relationship if you tell yourself other people are unhappy too.
What my scripts were doing was “sour grapes”: telling myself that what I wanted was actually not that great, in an effort to convince myself not to want those things. But the truth is that I did want to find a great relationship. And I wished I didn’t have to stress about money so much. And pretending I didn’t want these things didn’t make the desire go away. It was still there trying to break through, kind of muttering to itself under its breath (you know the way you do when you don’t believe anyone’s going to listen but you just kind of have to vent anyway?).
The result was that while on the surface I seemed to be a content and happy person unbothered by envy, I also often struggled to figure out what I wanted.
How to know if you’re avoiding envy
One telltale sign that you’re over-managing your envy? You can’t make a vision board.
For years I loved the idea of a vision board, but I couldn’t figure out how to make one. I couldn’t see the vision clearly enough. Every time I asked myself, “What do I want?” I just got stuck.
After doing the exercise around envy, though, the pieces of my vision board just started to appear in my head. Listening to my envy, as hard as it was, helped open up some spaces for growth. For example, I didn’t know how much I was craving an outlet for visual creativity until I noticed the pang of jealousy every time a beautiful illustration or drawing popped up in my feed. I had been telling myself that painting was a hobby that was irrelevant to my work and therefore I didn’t have time for it. But this made me see that drawing and painting were more important to me than just a hobby. They were creative modalities I felt disconnected from, and this was impacting my confidence in other areas of life.
I decided to start a sketchbook. I told myself, it’s ok to be bad, because you have to be bad before you can be good. And the result has been fascinating. On days when I make something, even something terrible, seeing beautiful illustrations makes me feel inspired. It’s only on days when I don’t make something that I feel envy.
This isn’t to suggest that we’ll always be able to have everything we covet. I might never be a talented visual artist. But if I don’t listen to the desire, I can’t make a conscious decision about whether that’s a worthwhile goal for me to pursue. I can’t access that joy if I don’t first let myself want it.
Unraveling our envy defense mechanisms
There’s one more step to learning from our envy and using it to guide us toward joy. When we notice envy, it’s important to examine the scripts we use to talk ourselves out of it. Sometimes these are “sour grapes,” like the judgments I mentioned earlier. When we run across these judgments, it’s helpful to ask: Where did this belief come from? How do I know it’s true? What might be possible if it’s not true?
Take, for example, the judgment that caring about clothes is superficial. I’ve always loved clothes, but also always secretly harbored this belief that it was a frivolous thing to care about. This created a lot of tension for me. It made fashion feel like a guilty pleasure, something I could enjoy only in small doses. I couldn’t spend much money on clothes (even if I had it to spend) because it was a “bad” or wasteful use of money. Letting go of that judgment freed me from an unnecessary tension. It opened up space for me to enjoy getting dressed, and helped me see that it was possible to be both very serious and very stylish too.
Sometimes, though, our envy defense mechanisms aren’t about judgment, but fear. For example, take my envy of someone’s three-week European vacation. The line that kept ringing in my head was “I could never do that.”
Notice that “I could never do that” isn’t “I don’t want that.” It’s a belief that there’s some barrier preventing you from having what you want. Rather than take that barrier at face value, first examine if there’s a real desire there. In an ideal world, would you want to be taking a three-week trip through Europe?
If so, then ask yourself why you believe it’s not possible. And then have a conversation with all the obstacles your unconscious throws at you. Here’s an example…
- “As a business owner, I couldn’t imagine taking off three weeks at a time.” Uh, it’s not like you have a boss. Don’t you run your own business? Who exactly is stopping you from taking that vacation?
- “I can’t imagine making enough money to be able to take a trip like that.”
Ok, but if you wanted to take that trip — if you really wanted it — could you imagine things you might do to earn or save the money for it?
- “If I go on a trip like that, I won’t want to come back to daily life.” What would be the risk of letting yourself fully relax for that amount of time?What are you afraid might happen? What evidence do you have that that’s really true?
What I find when I take the exercise to this level is that there’s often a fear underneath it: a fear of losing control. A fear that I’m not talented or bold enough to make the dream happen. A fear of actually getting what I want, and realizing it’s not as good as I hoped.
Our relationship with desire is complicated. We often see ourselves as a ravenous society, filled with out-of-control appetites that are depleting resources and putting our very future at risk. We’re taught to be suspicious of desire: that it’s endless, and if we satisfy it, we’re just going to want more. Conventional wisdom puts desire and gratitude in opposition. It tells us that if we want to be content, we have to overcome desire.
But the flip side of this is that desire gives us direction. It’s a spark that motivates us to try new things, explore and enjoy life. Often we can’t figure out what we might enjoy until we let ourselves hear our desires. And envy is a surprising, yet powerful way to tune into those desires.
What do you envy? What does it tell you about what you desire? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
If you’re looking to boost your joy, the Joy Jumpstart is a fun, self-guided program to help you rediscover what lights you up in life. You can start immediately and come back to it whenever you need to. Sign up today!