How Jealousy and Envy Destroy Happiness

Do you ever think about how connected money and self-esteem are?

Many of our interpersonal anxieties and social problems revolve around a dysfunctional belief that money is a measurement of fairness, equality, and human value.

I read this article from the Naked Economist last week and this section jumped out at me:

There’s a very interesting strain of economic research showing that our sense of well-being is determined more by our relative wealth than by our absolute wealth.

In other words, we care less about how much money we have than we do about how much money we have relative to everyone else. In a fascinating survey, Cornell economist Robert Frank found that a majority of Americans would prefer to earn $100,000 while everyone else earns $85,000, rather than earning $110,000 while everyone else earns $200,000.

Think about it: People would prefer to have less stuff, as long as they have more stuff than the neighbors.

The point — and this is still a nascent field — is that a nation may be collectively better off (using some abstract measure of well-being) with a smaller, more evenly divided pie than with a larger pie that’s sliced less equitably. Reasonable people can and should argue about that.

Why are we so obsessed with measuring ourselves against everyone else?

This isn’t about one family living in abject poverty and another in opulent wealth. This is about being unhappy because your cousin has a three-car garage – and you only have a two-car garage– but you’d feel much better if he only had a one-car garage.

How do we end up acting against our own self-interest? Is it human nature? Or are we conditioned to behave this way?

This thinking works against your own self-interest because the root of all our material desires is the emotional desire to be happy. If someone else’s wealth prevents you from being happy, you do not control your own well-being – they do. Until you change your thinking, you are doomed to an unhappy life.

You see, this study reminds us that we are less interested in what we have and what we are doing than we are in what they have and what they are doing. This conundrum creates unease, negative emotions, and enslaves us.

How can you be free if your happiness is dependent on getting more than everyone else?

What bothers me even more than this misguided value system is the implied fix; since Dick and Jane have a Corvette and 6000 sq ft house and I don’t, I need the government to insure they don’t get those things so I don’t feel bad about myself.

Think about the insanity of this statement…
I want people to stop producing more wealth than me. It pisses me off, and I might go out and do something anti-social if someone doesn’t fix it.

Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for me to stop envying Dick and Jane, and learn how they acquired those things instead? Then maybe I could learn how to get them too.

Only when you spend life’s journey being grateful for what you have now – will you be able to enjoy what happens next.

When I mentioned this study to several groups of people, the subject seemed to cause them discomfort. No one likes to think they harbor emotions like greed, envy, or jealousy. But most of us must. In the US, virtually everyone has what they need to survive. Beyond that, everything serves an emotional need.

I realized that when I resent someone else’s bonus or their new house, I am behaving petty and infantile.

So I decided to stop evaluating myself based on how much money I make relative to my neighbors and friends. I know how much money I need to reach my goals and I have that goal written down and etched into my mind. Some people will have more than I have and other people will have less, and that doesn’t bother me.

I know only I can prevent me from earning the amount of money I need to reach my goals.

And you know what… I am much happier than before.

25 thoughts on “How Jealousy and Envy Destroy Happiness”

  1. Great post Steve,

    A few years ago I was in Vanuatu for a friends wedding.

    These unsophisticated, uneducated, happy people taught me much more about success and happiness than I could ever teach them. Sometimes when I was around them I felt stupid. … but mostly I felt privileged.

    I felt as though I had made my life something much more difficult and complex than it needed to be. These people who earned ten dollars (Australian) per week ($7.50 US), had never even heard of the term ‘Personal Development’, didn’t know what a psychologist was and played soccer for hours on the beach with a ball made from leaves, never stopped laughing, smiling or having fun.

    Life’s not about ‘stuff’, it’s about positive communication with other people.

    Keep up the great writing Steve.

    Craig Harper (Melbourne, Australia)

  2. I’m not surprised to see the effects of relative success are much more important than absolute. The reason we do those things in the first place is to make ourselves feel superior to other people. If only we could root out our primitive drives for competitiveness and aggression, maybe we could find some lasting peace.

  3. You mean I shouldn’t strive to get 200 more links just so I could get ahead of you in Technorati 😉

    Seriously, if we spent as much time and energy being rigorous with ourselves and watching our lives as we do watching other peoples lives, we would be so much better off.

    In our part of the world, it will take a return to the idea that happiness, joy, and love come from within and that no amount of achieving will provide lasting enjoyment. It will always be about the next big thing.

  4. Nations of the world would be better off figuring out how to help people generate wealth and improve their situation in life instead of attempting to re-distribute wealth. Governments should focus on policies that make it easier to start businesses and generate income.

    These types fo policies paired with the drive to be better off than your neighbor would generate larger, stronger, wealthier economies world wide. They would increase the size of the pie.

    Instead, governments reinforce the negative side of human nature that would rather have less overall as long as it is more than someone else. As a result we have a smaller pie.

    What’s worse is that it is probably shrinking as the population is growing and governments retard economic growth.

  5. Before you envy someone for how wealthy they are (Which you should never do,because contentment for your own existence is all that matters), take a moment to think about this possibility…

    It’s safe to say, unfortunately, that most people earn their money doing jobs that they hate. We’re stuck in a society which believes that such a lifestyle is normal, and should be accepted, because “That’s just the way things are.” So when you look across your property line and see your neighbor with all their fancy toys, consider the possibility that the focus of your envy potentially hated every moment of work leading up to their monetary success. Do you still envy them? Would you trade your overall happiness for a bright red sports car in the garage? I know I wouldn’t.

    What needs to be done to guarantee success is this… Focus on working with activities that make you happy – The potential for success is much greater for those who do what they love, and you’ll be surprised at how riches seem to manifest themselves as a result of simply operating day to day with a smile on your face.

  6. Yes, Steve, I have always felt this. I see it in my kids with respect to what their friends have. If others around us – our neighbors, our friends- don’t have much, then we tend to be happy with less. But if they have alot, then we feel we need alot in order to be happy. So if happiness is so much a state of mind rather based on absolutes, we should be able to control our minds enough to break free from this dependency.

  7. Good post.

    Half of it is to stop comparing yourselves to others, but the other half is to stop and think about what really makes you happy. Will a bigger house or more doors on your garage will? That’s the fundamental question that too few people ask themselves before jumping on the consumption threadmill.

    I would say that I’m one of the happiest – if not the happiest – person I know, yet all I buy is books when the library doesn’t have them and music.

    If the theory that more stuff (and money) makes you happy was true, I’d probably be pretty unhappy. But I happen to think that people buy and buy to distract themselves from a void in their lives. Without that distraction they’d be forced to look at that gaping hole, and it might not be pleasant… But it’s also the only way to start doing something about it.

    So question your consumption.

    Money is good, but mostly for the security it provides. Not the stuff (and when you buy too much stuff and go into debt, you lose the security part anyway…)


  8. Steve, great post. One of the biggest lies in the universe is that there isn’t enough money and that if someone has more, someone else has to have less.

  9. I think it can be helpful to sometimes evaluate yourself and look at others to see how you’re doing. Not concerning money but for example how my children are doing. Lets say my children are 3 and can’t sit at the table and eat while everyone else can, I’m probably not doing a good job as a father.

    Unfortunately this only crates misery when comparing financial wealth. I think it has to do with confidence. When you have good amounts of money it doesn’t feel necessary to compare or show off. But if you’re aiming to reach higher and show you’re doing well many feel it important to show it to others.

    I lived in NYC for many years and made quite good amounts of money. Of course I felt poor when someone scooped up a townhouse for $8 mil. it made me feel poor. But my savior has often been my many visits down in Mexico. These people don’t give a crap about what you do, where you’re from, or how much money you have. It’s all about what kind of perosn you are. That has helped me a lot in my outlook on life.


  10. That reminds me 1 thing – always feel happy about what u have, nothing is deserved to u, but now u have them! Why not feel happy? Why do u still need to feel bad just because u have less than the others? but honestly I cant do it, why other ppl can have more than me?? Its a very complicated emotion i know… but still, i wont envy that somebody.

    Comparing urself with others is not always bad, but feeling proud if u have more than others, and feeling.. um.. doomed, when u have less than the others may not b that good to urself. So, u know I really like this idea in ur article: “Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for me to stop envying somebody, and LEARN how they acquired those things instead?” Learn more, and to improve urself, instead of having meaningless feelings or emotions sure is more meaningful.

  11. “OMG! You know what’s in my mind! I know that’s bad but how can I improve that?”

    Hi Steve, that’s my “favorites” thought when I read your and Steve Pavlina’s posts. You guys are great and I just like to say that I really appreciate your effort for writing this post.

    p/s: I always try to remind myself that I should be grateful for what I have now!

  12. I heard Dr. Tom Anderson say that life isn’t what you possess, it’s what possesses you. That’s totally accurate, your possessions will never bring true happiness.

    I wrote this article awhile back– that fits in perfectly with this subject.

    Thanks for sharing this Steve, it’s great inspiration!

  13. I learned a lot about possessions when I got divorced from a very self centred and miserable person. My X would not ever be satisfied, and her unhappiness translated into relentlessly pursuing the next material possession. Sitting in my empty living room on a pillow watching a movie with my best friend made me not miss all the things she stole from me. That was just stuff. I still had my new life. Life is infinitely more important than stuff. At that time, all the lies I had accepted since I was very young became apparent, as did the futility of trying to be someone I am not.

    I still don’t have as many “things” as many people I work with, or live in my neighbourhood. I do have something much more important, a girlfriend who loves me, a job that I am proud of, and more than enough “stuff”. Not to mention that I don’t have any debt caused by chasing the next thing that comes along.

  14. I work at the Sedalia Walmart Supercenter and every week,the associates will get very hostile towards me and very rude cause they are jealous of my financial sucess, they think they are getting towards me and making me upset to quite my job there…..but I just think and giggle to myself and think they are jealous it hurts them not me, they only wish they could have the money I have. Payday arrives and they are happy until they have their alcohol party and loose their doe they work hard for… money works hard for me.

  15. You know i hate that as well. At work when some one else gets a raise then other guys want to complain and implicatebpeople. Yet the same people get favored during other times…and then its ok. I believe that God will always give us wht is inteded for us. If the raise is good for me then God will give it to me. Wht should i care if xx has a benz…i would rather thank God that I am not renting and that i have food on my table throught the year. That is the only way to be happy

  16. What a sick culture we have…where we WANT to feel like we have more than others, instead of not wanting to seem greedy or ostentatious. I wish our culture valued humbleness, sharing, philanthropy, being concerned about the suffering in the world. That we would be repulsed by conspicuous consumption, amazed at self-absorption. Oh well….

  17. I like this artical, i have always thought jealousy is a waste of emotions and consider myself never a jealous person but i have met ,even have in my family seriously jelous people and the things they do to compete is hard to take especially if their family. I have a great way of stopping being jealous of others, just stop wanting, i stop wanting then find im happier, yes i do have my needs, we all do to live and survive, thats life its just when it goes over the top that cause anxieties when alot is not neccesarily.
    I have a sister and her husband and children are very well off yet they still are jealous if any friends or my two children have something they havent got, espeicially if they cant buy it, they almost hate you for it, they are insanly jealous of their personal achievments, its as if now they have been financially succesfull they are still not satisfied unless others must fail around them, it makes people dislike them not for their succes but their personal traits they have gained that has made them quite spitefull people, this is very hard when it is family, when all you want is to be with loved ones. media is also to blame for this… try a simple not wanting life concertrate on your needs and personal goals , ignore others questioning and if were lucky some of us may have a good life, and if your lucky to survive, eat and live always be happy with what you got not unhappy with what you havent got, keep that jealousy away out of your life it eats at people. chris

  18. I may be just a school student, having never studied business in my life, but surely this article is obsolete on the basis that the source material used has been analysed in the wrong way.

    I think the main reason everyone would want to earn more then others is that if you were the only person earning half as much as everyone else, you wouldnt be able to feed yourself and your family with the fact that every purchasable item would suffer inflation due to everyone having the same wages (except poor old you of course).

  19. This post is right on! It can get exhausting to constantly compare oneself to others. I learned earlier on in the U.S. (I’m from Southern Africa) that, the best way to compete and actually become successful in an American classroom, (i know this is a long sentence) was to compete against the material presented. For example, I’d say, Psychology 101? You think you gonna win against me? Right…then of course I’d study well and that helped me remember and retrieve info and ace the course. I decided to do this after I realized that it was stressful to compare myself to so many different people in different scenarios. Also, I had experienced exclusion and indirect aggression. This only happened sometimes. Most students were cool. So, getting a high mark pumped my self esteem up.

    That helped me get straight As in a Public Speaking class and so on. Not only that, some students would come and ask me how I did it (present so well that is). To inspire others to do well is better that being envious and jealous. Comparing myself was not helping me. So, I changed. These days, I see people complete and talk behind others’ back…it’s all nonsense. I compliment others when it’s appropriate and try to stay away from the she said…i said stuff. We are supposed to grow up and become wiser…at least be wiser by age 26. Otherwise grown ups who do this, why waste precious time. This can bring unnecessary stress in my view. I just try to keep an open mind and keep things in perspective. Individualism and collectivism have the pros and cons as well. On top of that, we live in a sad world of CREDIT, it can be helpful, but overall, it has created a sad scenario for humanity. Peace:)

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