What’s the opposite of envy? The answer isn’t immediately obvious to me, but contentment might be the closest thing. My mind has been conditioned for the opposite of contentment—I’m frequently comparing and envying the differences between myself and others. Whether it is clothes, finances, homes, physiques, or mindset–the list is both never-ending and exhausting. Given that I’m often not aware of the habit, it’s hard to imagine my mind without thoughts of comparison or envy.
When I close my eyes and imagine living my life with contentment, it is liberating. My mind feels relaxed, receptive, serene, and tender. While these feelings are positive, I also feel a sense of vulnerability. Who would I be without that habitual comparing mind? It feels permissible to let go of an envious mind while on my meditation cushion, but what about when I’m off the cushion?
The “comparing mind” is universal. You might wonder: Isn’t comparison and envy just a part of being a human being? Doesn’t it give us a sense of where we stand and what’s possible?
In a sense, yes, it does. I have been inspired by others and motivated to copy their benevolent actions, but that is very distinct from using a comparing mind to feel inferior and striving to get what another has or to replicate what another does.
Here’s a litmus test
- Do you ever feel envious of someone who seems successful, who seems to be in the flow with living?
- Does their success make you feel angst, inferior, or fill you with self-pity and disappointment?
- Do you wonder why the light can’t shine a little bit less on them and a little bit more on you?
The Cost of Envy
Now, let’s also look at the cost of envy. You could be feeling great about your life, finances or house but when you become aware of someone else’s, you might suddenly feel inadequate. You might even feel a sense of striving that might be motivated by a need to compete with someone else. Some of my worst feelings of buyer’s remorse came after envying someone else’s purchase. My worst bicycle injuries happened right after striving to ride like someone else.
Oscar Wilde has the quote that’s the antithesis of envy. It says, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” I love this quote and wish it had been the mantra I had to recite every day in elementary school. Throughout my life, I felt like I wanted to be someone else. Now when I catch my mind as it starts to compare, I recite the mantra: Be yourself, Spencer, everyone else is already taken.
I could turn envy upside down by wishing wellness to the person I’m envying. Like many mindfulness practices, it’s like turning into the skid—doing what seems like the most counterintuitive thing possible.
And, then someone suggested something radical: I could turn envy upside down by wishing wellness to the person I’m envying. Like many mindfulness practices, it’s like turning into the skid—doing what seems like the most counterintuitive thing possible.
At first, I thought, You gotta be kidding! I’m from NYC and the world is a zero-sum game; if I wish wellness to the person who has it all, there will be less for me. But, I finally got to a point of immense suffering with my envy of a close friend. As he was scoring repeated successes, I was feeling more and more inferior.
I started resenting him, and our friendship flattened, as I became aware of how my comparing mind limited my success and drained my energy. So, I did an experiment. Every day for 30 days, I visualized him and said the following at the end of my meditation:
May your financial success continue to expand.
May your happiness never cease.
May you flourish forever.
Meet Envy with Kindness
What happened at the end of a month? Not much. But I was undeterred. I recommitted myself to feeling the meaning behind the words, not just saying them to check off an item on my to-do list. At about the 6-week mark, I noticed that hearing about his successes no longer upset me. My comparing mind was getting quieter! I began to feel joy when I heard about his wins. This was both a stunning and welcoming revelation. The more he accomplished, the more joy I felt.
As you feel joy upon hearing another’s success (even someone you don’t know), you’re expanding the amount of joy in your life.
While envy is the seed for feeling scarcity and fear, joy is the seed for confidence, fullness and ease. As you feel joy upon hearing another’s success (even someone you don’t know), you’re expanding the amount of joy in your life. It’s a simple idea, but joy is vastly underrated—probably because we can’t imagine feeling it when we are in scarcity, fear, and envy. But joy is an incubator for more joy; like success at work and at home.
The rewards of this sympathetic joy practice are immeasurable. My friendships have deepened and so has my feeling of sufficiency. Now, I have the ability to feel joy when another has something to celebrate, not just when I experience success. It’s the most liberating thing I’ve ever done, and it’s worth it.
So, I encourage you to do what might feel awkward: try the above practice with someone with whom your mind compares or envies. Do it for 30 days, but keep going if it takes longer. Step into the possibility of living your own life without a sense of comparison or envy. Let your mindfulness practice help you— use your awareness and compassion to guide you to freedom and contentment.