How inevitable is envy?

How inevitable is envy?
American writer Gore Vidal may have been candid about his emotions, even aggressively rude some would contend, as he proclaimed, “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies”. Comparison, depravation, discontentment, ungratefulness — take your pick and envy is a natural outcome. You’d want to argue that envy could be good. After all, it could spur you to do better, right? Compete with the best and try to outdo that person? But hey! Who are you kidding? Envy leading to betterment is as rare as, well, Obama admitting Kanye West is an apt presidential candidate.

Darshana finds herself on a slippery slope with this very emotion. “I am bang in the middle of feeling envious about none other than my best friend. She’s single and fancy free; she gets to go out and earn her pay cheque, while here I am, handling household chores and a child. No me-time, looking dowdy and no financial independence whatsoever. She, on the other hand, just returned from a trip to Rohtang Pass and is obviously gloating about it.”

That rant continued for another hour, but let me just cut that short. Green-, purple- or black-eyed — describe it as you may — the envy monster sure is ugly. Not without reason is it counted among the Seven Deadly Sins. This fiend can catch you unawares at home, at office, at college or anywhere else and wreak havoc.

Darshana is one of its unhappy victims. “It’s not that I am discontent with what life’s given me and I still remember those values taught by my parents about counting your blessings,but this is really unfair. The worse thing is I can’t even show it. She’s my best buddy!”

Gauri remembers a schoolmate, a gregarious little girl who was a bright student and stellar athlete; she developed a strange self-consciousness about her skin colour in her growing up years. “She would soak in her victories on the track field, but her losses were often blamed on the victor’s fairer complexion. If she wasn’t short-listed in an elocution competition, the reason she gave herself, and often to her friends, was that fairer kids looked better on inter-school platforms. To her, the fairer kids were lucky and always got ahead on account of their looks. It turned so bad that she slowly withdrew from most of the friends she grew up with. Twenty years after school, none of us know her whereabouts,” she says.

Toxic culture
More often than not, the path of envy is a downward spiral. At the office, it’s arguably the worst. HR rungs are flush with stories of how envy causes the biggest rifts and spreads toxic culture in the work environment.

For instance, let’s consider Nitin, an extremely competitive professional in the e-learning industry. While most of his ideas are brilliant, he does not get the promotions and raises that his contemporaries get. Not considering the fact that the problem could be his poor execution of ideas, he becomes more aggressive and difficult to handle. This invariably affects the morale and work of the team he heads. It’s a vicious circle.

Some would argue that envy is at its worst when family gets involved. “My first cousin and I ran our business handed down by our fathers. That’s the way it works in our community. We even stayed together because we wanted everything to be in sync. The blow came when our clients started favouring one over the other. If one of us would speak about a better cash deal, then the other would try to outdo it with higher sales volumes. It was good for the business initially because as a team we had our strengths,” shares Saurav.

However, he confesses that when this constant one-upmanship reached the home front and started affecting their wives’ and children’s lives too, it got murky. “Every single thing, right from sending our kids to the most prestigious school to hosting the most lavish parties, became a competing arena. Envy took down our business and our family,” he rues. Saurav has shifted base from Mumbai to Kolkata to move away from the mess.

Cashing in on the big ‘E’
Is someone benefitting from this ‘sin’? The answer is a thumping yes. The advertising industry thrives on envy. Remember that iconic 1980s ad line: Neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride? Envy is what gets you hooked on to the latest gadgets, the coolest fashion accessories, the most premium homes and those lavish holiday packages. Don’t you get envious when a celebrity endorses a drool-worthy product? Celebrity envy fuels social media and other media channels too. Take a look around – everything from body image to bringing up children is now more copybook style than ever.

The first step to coming to terms with the situation is admitting to the emotion, believes Lynette. “I realised that envy strikes each one of us. I was no exception. I was being outsmarted at work by a woman who I felt was more confident and certainly better looking than me. I felt miserable and resorted to cosmetics like I never had. I thought it would make me perform better,” she confides. But things changed when the object of envy moved to a different office and Lynette got an opportunity to do some introspection. “We met again and I figured she respected my work. It was such a fabulous feeling,” she says.

Gauri has experienced that “fabulous feeling” too. A decade ago, when she moved to the US, leaving a career and family behind, to start a new life with her husband, it was a vulnerable phase for her. “I didn’t know how to cook, was struggling to find my feet in a collapsed job market and didn’t have my own friends circle or support system that I was so used to in India,” she recalls. It was during this time that she met the wife of her husband’s roommate in graduate school. She was a well-to-do pharmacist and an excellent homemaker who had a swarm of friends and admirers and seemed content with her life.

Envy struck, and how!
It affected Gauri in a way that was very uncharacteristic of her. She hated it when people spoke well of the lady and it did not help that ‘the woman who had it all’ was strangely cold to Gauri. What started out as a minor irritation turned to anger and threatened to destroy the friendship between the husbands. However, just in time, Gauri got busy with graduate school and internships. She also realised that the two of them were just different personalities. “I was talkative and outgoing, she was not. I was able to pull back and look in the mirror. I am proud to say that I did make amends and we are all friends,” she avers.

Socialist revolutions, mythological stories, wars and political campaigns — look back in time and you realise that envy has had a hand to play in many. So, is this deadly sin simply a part of our DNA? Psychiatrist Sindhu Madhavan says, “It’s actually got to do with self-esteem. If you appreciate your strengths and believe in yourself, there’s no room for envy.” Tall order, that!

(Some names have been changed on request)

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