How this green-eyed monster is detrimental to your happiness
By Diane E. Lykes, LCSW
Where did ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’come from?
According to The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson, the origin of this phrase is rooted in the popular comic strip of the same name created by cartoonist Arthur R. “Pop” Momand. The strip debuted in 1913, ran in American newspapers for 28 years, and eventually was adapted into books, films, and musical comedies. The “Joneses” of the title were neighbors of the strip’s main characters, and were spoken of but never actually seen in person.
It is possible that Momand named them in reference to George Frederic and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, parents of novelist Edith Wharton. However, it is most likely that this phrase derives its meaning from Pembroke Jones, shipping and railway industrialist of the early 20th century. Jones, of Wilmington, North Carolina, was a leader in both New York and Newport social circles well known for hosting lavish parties.
Envy is one of those emotions that most people would prefer to live without. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines envy as: “discontent and ill will over another’s advantages and possessions or a desire for something that another person has.”
The feelings and thoughts associated with envy are particularly unpleasant. Jealousy, spite, rivalry and resentment are all synonymous with envy.
Some people are envious of the rich and famous, but most find envy sitting right outside their front door. Our own neighbors, colleagues and friends can ignite uncomfortable feelings of jealousy. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses has become commonplace, and for some people, a harmful obsession.
If you find yourself carrying envy in your heart, read on to learn ways to eliminate it from your life. In doing so, you can begin your journey toward a more fulfilling life of your own.
Envy is the enemy of happiness
In his book The Geography of Bliss…One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, author Eric Weiner makes some surprising discoveries about happiness and envy. In Iceland, where the winter sun escapes its residents and the wind gusts up to 100 mph, we find one of the happiest places to live. This little country consistently ranks as one of the happiest places in the world.
Ironically, the harsh climate in Iceland breeds a sort of cozy cooperation among its people. They recognize the need to work together for mutual sustainability as opposed to other countries whose primary focus is on achieving individual success and wealth.
The Swiss people also ranked very high as the happiest people in the world. Why? One reason is that in Switzerland, people have a very healthy attitude toward money. In America we have an attitude of “if you’ve got it flaunt it.” In Switzerland, the wealthiest people do not live in the biggest houses or drive around in $80,000 cars. They do not believe in flaunting what they have, and in abstaining from this practice, do not encourage envy among their friends.
We all hear stories of people in our communities who buy very large homes far beyond their means. In some ways, this is an attempt to prove to their friends (and themselves) that they have “arrived”. I know a local landscaper who rang the doorbell of one such house. When the occupant opened the front door, the interior of the house was virtually unfurnished. The family was having dinner in their dining room on lawn furniture! It was more important for them to have the appearance of an upscale house than to actually live in a comfortable and affordable home.
What can we learn from all of this? It appears that all signs point to envy as the enemy of happiness. When we are more focused on what others have, we may find ourselves living a bitter and resentful existence, rather than appreciating our own good fortune. We may also find ourselves in foreclosure.
Incidentally, the US ranks number 23 when it comes to how happy we feel about our lives. The author notes that the US is not as happy as it is wealthy.
Using envy as a tool for chasing your own dreams
Using envy as a teacher allows us to better understand what is important to us and then helps us decide whether these “important” things are what will truly make us happy. As mentioned, people often get caught up in the feeling that having “more” will make them happy. Research, however, does not support this. Unless someone is living in extreme poverty, the rich are no happier than the middle class or working class.
In one study, researchers found that people who were working toward deep and meaningful goals, self-development or self-discovery weighed less, slept better and had fewer stress hormones and heart disease than those focused on pleasure–oriented hedonistic forms of happiness. The excitement caused by a new purchase is not lasting. The fulfillment created by a loving relationship, a new career or a healthier body is.
This is not to say that we should give up on our goals of nice vacations, a beautiful home or a comfortable retirement. It is in our human nature to want more (the hunters and gatherers in us all). What it does mean is that wasting our time wishing for what someone else has is a loser’s game.
Instead try these three suggestions for decreasing envy and increasing fulfillment:
1. Take action in your life. Focus and discipline will get you what you are really after, rather than longing for what others have. Write down a list of five things you really want to see take shape in the next month. Ask yourself if these five things bring you closer to what you want or whether they are just filling up your time. Your list should include only the things that will bring you one step closer to your long-term goals.
2. Don’t get caught up in “conditional” happiness. Longing for what we don’t have takes away from our ability to live the life we have today. And when we forget to enjoy the moments of our lives and focus instead on “I’ll only be happy when…” we miss out on so many of the every day enjoyable moments.
3. Learn to extract more pleasure from the things that are right in front of you. What do you have that you worked very hard to get? Is it your house, your relationship, your health, your job? Were you proud of your home when you first moved in, but find yourself focused on the flaws or comparing it negatively to your friends’ homes?
Lasting happiness does not come from longing for what someone else has. It comes from counting the blessings you have been given while you work toward your own attainable goals.
When we compare ourselves to others it wastes our valuable energy. There is no way of knowing whether that person you envy is actually living the life you are imagining. Chances are you wouldn’t want their life if you had it.
And, as you appreciate all that you have and follow your own dreams, don’t be surprised if someone out there is envying you! l
Diane Lykes is a Principal of Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany where she specializes in individual and couples counseling, educational training and clinical consultation. Synergy is a unique counseling practice providing compassionate, solution-oriented treatment for adults, children, adolescents and families. She can be reached at 466-3100 or at firstname.lastname@example.org