walking on custard

Can Jealousy Be Good? Finding Perspective on Others’ Successes

18 Aug 2020

Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

They say “comparison is the thief of joy.” But, unfortunately, comparison can’t steal other people’s joy.

Believe me, I’ve tried.

Most of the time, I’m happy when others do well. I even try to love and support my fellow writers unconditionally, retweeting their work, sending encouragement, and wishing them luck…

…unless they dare to win an award, get a publishing deal, or their work gets praised in even the tiniest way, in which case they are dead to me. With painful jealousy in my heart, I’ll block them across social media before you can say “overrated talentless hackery being rewarded ahead of proper original genius AGAIN.”

Ahem, well, I’m exaggerating. (A bit.) But you probably know the feeling. It hurts when others seem to pass us by, whether they’re getting promoted, travelling, earning more, or receiving more praise.

Jealousy—whether of somebody’s success or their breadth—is unpleasant and anxiety-inducing. I’ve spent some time trying to change my relationship with jealousy, and this is what I’ve learned.

I’m not the only one

One aspect that makes jealousy especially difficult is that whenever I feel jealous, I make it extra toxic by adding a layer of shame on top: “I shouldn’t be jealous! I should be happy for them! God, I’m terrible.”

There’s no real need for this shame. We live in a world of constant exposure to the success of others, and it’s a rational response to be frustrated and jealous from time-to-time.

Even so, I am always relieved that it’s not only me that’s susceptible. Famous author Neil Gaiman (who I can freely admit is a way better author-named-Neil than I am) tells an amazing story about comparison.

He felt like an impostor at a particular gathering, and got chatting to another guy who also felt intimidated by the achievements of the other guests. And Neil Gaiman responded: “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

If even Neils Armstrong & Gaiman feel insecure about others’ achievements, then no Neil is immune. And this probably even applies to people who aren’t called Neil!

I like this story because much of my jealousy comes from how effortless I imagine others’ lives to be. This makes sense: I don’t get to see Neil Gaiman actually writing books, I just see the end product. Without any other context, my brain defaults to imagining that the polished final product is all there is, as if his work just magically appears.

In reality, most achievements require a tonne of work—and, if I really think about it, I would feel pretty guilty if I were one of the lucky few who just stumbled into a fortune through no merit of my own.

But this isn’t a complete cure, and it doesn’t make the pangs of jealousy any less painful when I see people enjoying whatever it is that I imagine I lack.

One opposite of jealousy is compassion

What helped me the most was a time I spent consciously keeping an eye out for other people’s misfortunes. This might sound strange or cruel, but it wasn’t out of glee or schadenfreude, or anything like that.

It was a deliberate attempt to prove to my brain that I had been selectively paying attention only to others’ successes while ignoring their failures. My theory was that I spent so much time focusing on what I lacked that I was neglecting what I had.

During this time, I consciously clicked on bad news stories I would normally scroll past. I absorbed the bad luck that befell strangers, celebrities, and even people I knew. And this had a tremendous balancing effect.

I saw friends whose lives I otherwise envied having to struggle through long, hard night shifts. I noticed a sports star stepping back from their role due to crippling anxiety. A friend-of-a-friend going through a messy divorce. Another celebrity, who seemed to have it all, getting sick.

Instead of constantly feeding my jealousy, paying attention to these stories fed my empathy. It reminded me that life is full of ups and downs, and that even those I was sometimes jealous of don’t have perfect lives—and that we’re all prone to sudden misfortune.

Turning my selective attention on its head helped me become more aware of the good in my own life, and the resulting gratitude started seeping into events which would previously have triggered a jealous response. When I saw other people’s success, it became easier to celebrate rather than envy, as it balanced out the bad news from elsewhere.

Even the inevitable sadness from reading about negative events was preferable to my previous jealousy and bitterness. At least this sadness could encourage me to do something: perhaps to donate time, money, assistance, or to attempt to change the situation.

This led me to another revelation. Jealousy hadn’t been the whole problem; it was my inability or unwillingness to channel the feeling into something positive that had caused the issue.

Just as sadness could be a motivating force to help with someone else’s problem, I could use jealousy as a motivating force to improve my own life. The reason I had never done this was my subconscious belief that the success of others meant I had less chance to succeed myself.

Again, this isn’t a totally irrational belief to subconsciously hold. For example, if someone wins a raffle, then my ticket can’t win. But life isn’t only made of such zero-sum games.

As long as I choose reasonable goals, someone else’s success doesn’t prevent mine.

For example, there can only ever be one first man on the moon, but I could aim to be A man on the moon. (Not that I would! I get terrible jet lag going down the street.) I may have lost out on that job, deal, victory or dessert, but there are many more of each out there to be had.

A plan for future jealousy

Of course, knowing all of this doesn’t make me immune to jealousy. I’m human, and I’m never going to stamp out all undesirable emotions forever. But now, when I feel jealous, I find these questions helpful:

  • What is it that this person has that I want?
  • What’s my real goal underneath that? (For example, if I’m jealous of their new job, is that because I want the opportunity, the money, the respect, the title…?)
  • Are there other ways of getting what I truly want, or is my heart set on one particular outcome
  • Am I imagining the person I’m jealous of found it easy to get this? If so, what am I ignoring?
  • Does their having it truly prevent me from also having it?
  • How could I work to get it too?
  • Would having this actually make me as happy as I imagine, or is this an illusion?
  • Is it a personal failure of mine that they have this? (This final answer is almost always no.)

Taking time to explore my own jealousy taught me to recognize what I actually want out of life. While researching this article I came across a quote attributed to the author Susan Piver:

“If I really think about it, I don’t actually want others not to have things that make them happy. What I find in myself is a tremendous well of longing for my own joy. And that longing is not bad in any way; it’s something to be embraced. And it sort of takes other people out of the equation.”

I like this a lot. Deep down, I do want others to succeed. But I also want the same joy I imagine they’re feeling. And if I work towards my goals, and allow myself to enjoy whatever milestones I achieve on the way, then there’s no reason I can’t feel that joy myself while enjoying everyone else’s success.

Except for those talentless hacks that are getting all my awards, of course.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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