(2 minute read)
Have you ever noticed a slight glow of pleasure when you hear about a successful and wealthy executive being forced out of their company? Or when someone who seems to have the perfect life — wonderful spouse, happy and bright children, lots of money — turns out to be not quite that perfect? Do you find yourself interested in the divorces and substance abuse problems of the rich and famous?
How about the reverse? When a friend has a stroke of luck, gets a big promotion, finds a great new job, or sees their child accepted into a top notch university, you tell them how happy you are for them. But do you really feel ONLY happiness? If you’re like the rest of us, you wish you’d feel nothing but happiness at the good fortune of others, and only sadness at their misfortune. But we don’t. It sometimes feels good to see those doing better than us come undone, just as it bothers us to see them get further ahead. So while we’re congratulating our friend, colleague or family member, there’s a little voice inside saying “What about me? How come I didn’t get that good thing?”
What makes things even more complicated is that we think we shouldn’t feel like this. So in addition to these somewhat uncomfortable feelings, we have another layer of emotion: guilt. We feel bad about having feelings we don’t think we should have. So we envy the fortunate, and then feel like a bad person for having that envy. (Some people feel so badly about their competitive feelings that they repress them, denying to others and to themselves that they feel anything other than the most appropriate joy or sympathy.)
So we feel bad for having competitive feelings. To make matters even worse, these feelings are so socially unacceptable that we often don’t dare tell other people that we have them. So we end up feeling isolated too: it seems that we must be the only person around who is a bad enough person that we’re not rejoicing wholeheartedly in the success of others and empathizing deeply in their troubles.
This is, of course, a side effect of being social creatures. We compare ourselves constantly to others, and measure our worth in comparative, not absolute terms. There’s truth in the old joke — What is the definition of ‘rich’? Answer: Ten percent more money than your brother in law is making. And this is part of what makes Facebook so addictive: it is the perfect platform to compare ourselves against others, checking out what parties we weren't invited to, who’s having a better vacation, whose clothes look better and whose family looks happier.
So what can we do about this character trait that unfortunately is part and parcel of being human? First, we can learn to accept our feelings. We can control our actions, but we can’t control our emotions. It’s OK to feel envious of others and even secretly to wish them some ill fortune. Envy and ill will can’t harm other people as long as we don’t act on our feelings. Being aware of our emotions enables us to consciously choose our behavior, rather than having our behavior being influenced by unconscious emotions.
Second, we can remove ourselves from the arms race. People who tell us about their good fortune are sometimes responding to us telling them about our own successes. (We do this directly, and sometimes indirectly through social media.) Perhaps we've made them envious, made them feel one-down from us, and when it’s their turn for a success, they want to restore the balance. That doesn’t mean we don’t share our success with others — just that we don’t make a big deal about it. And then when it’s their turn, perhaps they won’t make such a big deal about it either.
Third, we can try to make the success of others reflect on us too by being helpful in small ways. If we help someone role play a job interview, when they land that job it was partly due to us. Share our knowledge and experience of the university admissions system, and when a friend’s child gets accepted by Oxford, it was partly (even if only a very small part) due to us. Be a helpful listener to another, and whatever success that person has will reflect on us. It’s not going to wipe our uncomfortable emotions from the face of the planet and turn us all into selfless saints, but it will make things a little easier.