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Monday, February 6, 2012

How Envy Harms Our Physical & Mental Health

Is it a coincidence that, in western society, the colour green is associated with money and also with envy?  After all, capitalism is predicated on the assumption that success is defined by doing better than others, and on financial acquisition.  Entrepreneurs are encouraged to reach for that top 1% of earners, in order to realize the American dream.  To be in the top 1%, you must climb over the other 99!  This is not to suggest that striving to succeed is wrong.  Rather, it is trying to rise above others that is the problem, and envy is at the root of that clamour to “earn the green.”

In 2007, Dr. S. H. Kim  and Dr. R. Smith published a paper entitled “Comprehending Envy” in the Psychological Bulletin, which discussed the role of envy in our lives.  Envy, it appears, has a significant impact on our lives in myriad ways, from physical health to motivation to mental wellbeing.  Of the three, the most common association is the negative correlation between envy and happiness and peacefulness.

Envy universally is viewed negatively by all religions.  In Islam, envy can destroy a person’s good deeds.  In Christianity, one must reject envy in order to be saved. In Hinduism, anything, including envy, that leads to an imbalance in life will cause misery, while in Buddhism, taking joy in the good fortune of others is considered the antidote to envy.  Yet, envy is one of the prevailing emotions in all of us.

Advertisers often seek to stimulate feelings of envy, in order to encourage us to buy. Unfortunately, we attach euphemisms to this destructive force: labels such as desire, or drive, or want or need.  We “need” designer label clothes, the fanciest cars, the biggest home, and so on?

Integral to the divorce process is the division of assets, and lawyers prosper when each partner covets objects acquired during the union.  Very often, that desire for a particular item is driven less by an attachment to the item than it is to the need to beat the other former partner.

As a Canadian, I often hear other Canadians bemoan the fact that it is cheaper to buy in the USA, that life is better, that the American across the artificial border has more individual freedom, less tax, greater choice and so on.  Aside from the reality that this is untrue, many of our fellow Canadians envy and long for the life of a US citizen.  Yet, while some things are cheaper (fuel, for example, is about 8-15% cheaper), insurance, health premiums, education, many food items and a host of other acquisitions are priced higher than in Canada.  At the same time, wages generally are lower for the average person in the USA, social safety & wellbeing networks are less vigourous, and so on.

Many of the world’s prejudices and biases are borne out of resentment and envy, often compounded by a lack of true understanding.  How many in the Middle East dislike the USA because of envy and ignorance?  How many of us dislike the Chinese, and envy their perceived economic power due to envy over what we feel are unfair trade advantages? 

Studies have found consistently that envy and jealousy leads to stress and ill health.  Many other studies have concluded that envy and schadenfreude (taking pleasure in someone else’s misery) are components of and contributors to mental health problems, and occasionally manifest themselves in violence and dishonesty against others.  Some develop overwhelming need to gain revenge, destroy others or “bring them down.”

Yet, the desire to achieve and acquire, often associated with greed and power, are not, of themselves, negative.  The desire to achieve, and to be the best person one can be also are at the heart of democracy and capitalism.  The effort to improve the circumstance around us, to be dissatisfied with prevailing conditions is not a negative, either.  Envy is distinct from the need to be better, but draws this ambition close to its heart when that need is to be better than someone else, solely for the purpose of rising above that individual or group.  “Black power” and feminism both sought to improve the lot of those distinct groups, while the Aryan Nations efforts are directed at belittling and tearing down groups that are unlike the white supremists involved in that movement.  Clearly, the desire of the first two is to improve oneself or one’s lot in life, while the latter is intent, not on being better by improving, but by forcing others down.

Some people claim that any ambition is negative.  This, to me, merely is an excuse to be complacent, indifferent or indolent.

Envy is best repelled by taking joy in the success, good fortune and wellbeing of others, and, perhaps, following their examples.  Jealousy is best suppressed or rejected by recognizing and celebrating our own uniqueness, strengths and abilities, but not using those benefits to take advantage of others.  

Inner peace and contentment do not come from failing to rise to challenges, but from embracing those challenges, overcoming them, and savouring the feeling that we have improved ourselves, and have been considerate of others in the process. 

The greatest athlete, after all, does not so much compete against others as she or he competes against and challenges himself to rise to the occasion.  The most telling mark  of a true champion is the way he regards the competition after winning (or losing) the competition.  Few of the best waste energy on envy.  Why should we, then weaken ourselves – our physical health, our mental wellbeing or drive to be the best we can be – by allowing jealousy to govern us?

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