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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How Envy Impacts Happiness and Joy

While some may use the words interchangeably, depression is different from unhappiness. Clinical depression is a serious mental health issue which involves feelings of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness and impacts the ability to successfully accomplish routine tasks of daily living. While clinical depression is serious, it is treatable. Unhappiness is a feeling state which all of us have experienced at times in life. It may involve sadness, disappointment and anxiety. Without doubt, the most unhappy people in life are those filled with envy. Envy compromises dreams and steals joy. It makes us focus on what we don’t have, rather than what we have. It leads to a build up of resentment and strife.

Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation. It is felt when there is a perception that other people are much luckier, smarter, more attractive, and better. Historically considered one of the seven deadly sins (and in two the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament), envy is a “state in which the desired advantage enjoyed by another person or group of people causes a person to feel a painful blend of inferiority, hostility and resentment,” (Psychological Bulletin, 2007).

Some degree of envy toward those that have more is normal human nature. However, when there is a shift from “I wish I had what you have” to “I wish you did not have what you have”; there is ill will, and envy has become a destructive emotion. This level of envy where there is unhappiness at the good fortune of others can be harmful both mentally and physically. Medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it.” Deeply or pathologically envious people tend to feel chronically hostile, resentful and angry. They are less likely to feel grateful, and are unpleasant to be around.

Underlying feelings of inferiority are often the roots of deep envy. When we feel inferior, we see other people as being somehow larger and better than us. We long to be like them, but we tell ourselves that we can’t. A feeling of despair, disgust, envy and longing develops along with anger and resentment. If we value ourselves, when life goes well we feel happy and secure, and when life goes badly we assure ourselves that we’ll be able to cope. If we don’t value ourselves, we never feel happy and secure, even when everything goes well.

Babies are born with boundless unselfconscious confidence; without a sense of inferiority or superiority. As a child grows, the messages from parents, other adults, siblings and peers determine the conclusions about personal worth and value and therefore determine self esteem.

Dr. Richard Smith and Dr. Sun Hee Kim, from the University of Kentucky recently published a comprehensive article describing the nature of envy as well as the negative effects it can have on mental and physical health. Drs. Smith and Kim suggest learning to recognize feelings of envy and challenge them with cognitive techniques, including: reminders of the negative impact of envious thoughts; distracting from the negative thoughts by refocusing on other more pleasant thoughts, memories, or plans; and finally a process of reminders of our own positive qualities and advantages.

Understanding and challenging underlying feelings of inferiority is important. No one is superior, no one is inferior, and everybody is ordinary. No one escapes the pain of living and we all suffer disappointment, loss, failure and death. We all have to try to cope with life as best we can. It is important to learn to celebrate other people’s success, knowing that no one – other than you - can be good at being you. One way or another, we’re all ridiculous and we’re all important. Envying others prevents truly valuing our own life.

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