Gratitude vs Envy
Gratitude wins every single time.
Long ago, someone told me that I wouldn’t want to trade the problems I have with someone else because the problems I had were familiar to me. I have found this to be true for me. I see the problems that other people have, what they endured with problems they didn’t know how to solve, and what they did to overcome the problems they figured out. I decided that I didn’t really want the problems other people have.
I have had a similar experience when I observe people who appear to be living a better life than me. They live in a nicer house, they drive a nicer car, they make more money than I do, they seem to have better relationships, or they have a cool job. I used to envy those people. I used to wish that I could do what they do.
But then I started to notice what those people sacrificed in order to have the success that they enjoy now. To become good at anything requires practice, skills, and talent. Even if you have a talent for business, performance, sports, or creative arts, success in any realm requires many hours of practice over many years to master. The drive to the top in any field of work requires a sacrifice that most people aren’t willing to make. That’s why it can be lonely at the top.
I remember reading how Donny and Marie Osmond and their family rose to success. Yes, those kids had talent, but they spent 10–12 hours a day practicing those talents. Tiger Woods started on the path to professional golf when he was 2 years old. He never stopped, and with practice, golfing became his job. He golfs 8 hours a day while most of us worked for a living. The best writers in the world spend many hours over years learning and honing their craft. Some will isolate for days, weeks, and even months just to write a book. Elon Musk never seems to stops working.
In almost every direction I care to turn, where there is a success, there is a great sacrifice. Of those people we deem to be successful, they had other problems, problems that came with their success that I’m not so sure I could handle. They devoted time to their craft that could have been spent doing something else. Musicians often give up their nights to their profession. The Beatles lived in a van for a year just so that they could afford to play music for a living when they started. Writers give up their time with others for their profession. Entrepreneurs can lose many nights of sleep obsessing over their business, the relationships they had to pass on in order to keep their business going, and nightmares about the IRS.
Often with success, the business takes on a life of its own. With success comes money, and with money comes material success. When I see the fancy houses, luxury cars, and expensive clothes, I am mindful of all the sacrifices made to get that lucre. I am mindful that even if one gets everything that they wanted, they may still find that they’re not happy. I am aware that people who have material success had to give up one capacity for another. So I temper my envy.
I have seen wealth up close and personal. Wealth is not perfect. It is not what life is all about. Wealth does not make up for my weaknesses, my frailties, or my character defects. Wealth does not make me happy, for I know the process of buying something new and watching that new thing become the new normal. I know what it’s like when the thrill is gone. So I temper my envy.
I know that even if I get what I wanted, having it will be novel at the start. That’s what I call “the honeymoon”. But after the honeymoon is over, the new condition becomes normal, the thrill is gone and I find that what was new and novel requires maintenance. That new thing that I own now owns me as much as I own it. Every new possession requires a decision to be made in order to use it and enjoy it. So I temper my envy.
I know that with every possession comes not just the joy of the shiny new thing, I know that every possession will come with a set of problems, decisions to be made, and a requirement for time and energy to make those decisions. I know what decision fatigue feels like. Even if that possession improves the quality of my life, it owns me. So I temper my envy.
I’ve watched the award shows, like the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Golden Globes. I’ve seen the stars, the emcees, and all that goes into acquiring that success, getting on that stage, and going home when the show is over. I am reminded of what Don Henley observed in his song, The Heart Of The Matter:
Oh, pride and competition
Cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm
When I watch the award shows, I consider all the sacrifices made to acquire that success and ask myself if that is something I’d be willing to do. Would I be willing to make the same sacrifices that those successful people made? I really don’t know, other than to say that I’m still here, not where those successful people are. I didn’t make the same choices they made. I didn’t have the same opportunity those people had. Even if I did have the same opportunity that they had, I am not sure that I’d have had the courage to do what they did. So I temper my envy.
I know what that envy feels like. I have felt envy wash over me before. I have seen the adverse reaction I’ve had with envy. I’ve seen the distraction that envy has been for me. The single biggest problem I’ve had with envy is that envy distracts me from myself and what I could be doing to make my life better. Envy is displacement activity, like smoking. Envy is an addiction, and I’ve been addicted to ENVY. I have recovered from that addiction.
Whenever I feel envy, I remind myself that everyone is on their own path. I remind myself that I don’t know what sacrifices were made for that other person to get what I felt envy for. I remind myself that a whole new set of problems can arise with whatever I envied if I ever got what I wanted or what that other person had that I thought I wanted. I remind myself that the object of my envy is not a replacement for making a choice to be happy with what I have now. I remind myself that I can replace my envy with gratitude.
Gratitude is the cure for envy. I’ve looked at a lot of potential solutions for envy. Work harder. Save your money. Displace the envy with a distraction. Call a friend. Read a book. Spend time with friends. Take a walk to the park. Do something other than envy something that someone else has. I’ve tried many things, but the most consistent remedy I’ve ever found for envy is gratitude.
Gratitude doesn’t cost any money. Gratitude is accessible. Gratitude is low hanging fruit. Gratitude is habit-forming, but it’s not addictive. You can never have too much gratitude. Gratitude is like the air we breathe, we have to notice it to appreciate it.
Gratitude displaces envy like love displaces hate. Gratitude can displace any negative feelings you might have. I have found that even on my most difficult days, gratitude is very effective for relief from discomfort. There is no drug, no food, no prize equal to gratitude. For the moment you have gratitude, you have made a decision to be happy with something you already have. No amount of money, prized possessions, or other rewards can make you decide to be happy with what you have. Once you make that turn on to gratitude, what other people have doesn’t matter much anymore.
The only caveat is that gratitude is a skill and it requires practice. You can trust that there is someone in your life who can help you with establishing a habit of gratitude. You can easily practice the skill of gratitude by writing 10 things that you’re grateful for in your life, every day. It doesn’t matter when you do it, just do it.
Gratitude isn’t just a feeling, it’s an action. Gratitude is the act of accepting everything exactly as it is right now and finding a reason to be happy about something in life. Anything. It starts with one decision. A stream of decisions to be grateful for something in life creates contentment. That’s why I write a gratitude list every morning.
I’ve been writing a gratitude list every morning for more than 10 years now. I was skeptical at first. I made predictions about how it wouldn’t work, and I used that as an excuse not to do it. But a friend of mine suggested that I could just try it to see what happens. So on that basis, I tried it. I wrote a gratitude list every morning not to make something happen, I wrote those lists just to see what happens next. I wrote a gratitude list because I had nothing to lose by doing it.
It felt contrived at first. I had trouble naming those things that I’m grateful for because I was making excuses like, “why would I be grateful for that when everyone else already has that, too?” Envy is about other people. Gratitude is about me. I wasn’t writing a gratitude list for you or anyone else. Whatever I was doing wasn’t working anyway, so I started writing a gratitude list for me, and only for me.
I started with the small stuff, like, “I’m alive”. There are a lot of people who aren’t alive today. I managed to make it this far, so I might as well be grateful for the fact that I’m alive. Then I moved on to the bigger game like “I have enough for today”. Then I added stuff, like, “there’s gas in my car and it runs” and, “I’m still married” and, “I (still) have a job”. I love my family. I love my home. There is peace in my house. I love to write. It started to flow.
Days of gratitude became weeks, and weeks became months. I began to notice a change in my attitude. It was subtle and small at first. I definitely noticed a change in my self-talk. I noticed less frustration, less tension, and I had fewer expectations. I began to feel a sense of relief, even though the quality of my life on the outside hadn’t really changed much, but I had changed the quality of my life on the inside. I had changed my very perception of life with a habit of gratitude. You can’t buy gratitude. You can only be grateful.
Just having gratitude alone cleared my mind of a ton of detritus and counterproductive thinking. As my mind cleared, I found that I could more easily identify things that I was grateful for. Gratitude makes it easier for me to choose to be happy. Gratitude made it easier for me to earn money, save money, get some of the things I wanted, and to give away the things I no longer wanted or needed. Gratitude gave me a greater capacity to handle disappointments. Gratitude made me more forgiving of others. Gratitude gave me contentment.