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Mind

The envy project: how to turn your envy into something positive

Can feeling jealous make you a better person? Deborah Hill Cone is about to find out.

By Deborah Hill Cone
They were on Waiheke Wine Tours and eating vegan ice creams and at concerts and at beaches and smashing out another workout at the gym. It had been ages since I'd visited social media, but nothing had changed. People were still putting novelty hats on their dogs and taking pictures of their salads #happy #blessed #gratitude #babies #family #together #love #joy #friends #bleugh.
Whereas in my IRL world, my kitchen needed cleaning, my kids were whining and had eaten nothing but white carbs for days, library books were overdue and the faint but distinct smell of cat pee suggested the cats were not going to be in an "aw, cute" Instagram story anytime soon.
When I looked at other people wearing wafty white linen on beaches and cleaning their chandeliers I felt like #shit. Welcome to the scourge of our time: envy. Frankly, I'd had enough of it.
And since I'd just learned this new term "radical nonpathology" (the idea that there is nothing ultimately wrong with any of us) instead of beating myself up about feeling envious, I decided to make peace with it. I called it The Envy Project. It could be a big job.
Envy is part of life. But we are generally taught to feel ashamed of our envious feelings. They are considered an indication of evil. So we hide them from ourselves and others. So much so that people will claim they don't envy anyone. This is bollocks, right?
Our modern society is a perfect breeding ground for envious feelings.
In the past the serf didn't envy the prince because, well, know your place, peasants. But once we got rid of the feudal-aristocratic system, everyone is considered equal and we compare ourselves and feel inadequate for not having a Ferrari. Social media has made that worse.
According to Scientific American, extensive use of Facebook fosters depression, and new studies have established that, for young people particularly, the impetus behind that drop in mood is largely motivated by envy. A lot of envy produces a 'why not me?' set of emotions and a low mood.
But the philosopher Nietzsche said there is nothing wrong with envy. He saw it as a signal from our deeper selves about what we really want: a fragment of our true potential. What matters is how we handle it. We should learn to study our envy, like a detective, keeping a diary of our envious moments, and then sift through episodes to discern the shape of a future, better self.
So when envy shows up, instead of feeling bad about it, we should get really curious. Why exactly am I envious of that person? Apparently digging deep will bring clarity about what we really want.
So, here, without shame, is an excerpt of my green-eyed envy diary.
A friend comes over with her beautiful young daughter, aged two. I take the daughter to the toilet. She is so compliant and chatty. She washes her hands and does what I tell her. Neither of our kids ever did what I told them.
I realise some people have kids with an 'easy' temperament. At the gym there is a hot yogi with a ring on her toe who does the most perfect wheel pose and her hipbones stick out. She wears leggings with flames like a hot-rod car.
A married friend comes. She complains about her husband with the kind of easy familiarity you get after 25 years of marriage. I don't envy people who are madly in love. I envy long, boring marriages.
I go for a walk on the beach. There are people with dogs. I wish I still had a dog.
At a café there is a chic woman in a billowing maxi dress with rock-star sunglasses and smelling of patchouli.
I am wearing a singlet from The Warehouse and smell of sweat and Impulse. (On the upside, another café-goer is wearing a T-shirt with "Suck it up Princess" on it, so things could be worse).
Eleanor Catton. I don't envy her for the fame and glory and the biggest literary prize in the world. Just that how wonderful would it be to have that talent and belief in yourself, a true calling. Also, my neighbour is the most amazing pianist and I listen to her playing Bach's Goldberg Variations and it sounds glorious. I envy those who have great creative gifts.
Jean-wearers. I'm too fat to wear jeans. But whenever I see people in jeans I think how it must make getting dressed so much easier. Jeans and a top. Done.
So what do these entries in my envy diary have to teach me? It takes a bit of digging. But maybe my friend's obedient neurotypical child might teach me to acknowledge the loss I feel about not having children who fit in easily to the social norms of our culture. I love that mine are quirky, but it would also be easier to have extroverted children who like sport and eat tomatoes. Naming our grief can help us to feel it, and then let it go.
My envy of the hot yogi is motivation to keep going with my old-lady yoga practice.
My hipbones are never going to stick out, but wheel pose does get easier.
My envy of my friend with the long marriage might teach me to appreciate my partner when we do boring things like water blasting the deck as if we are an old married couple.
My envy of dog-owners might be a message that it is time to get another dog. (Or borrow a dog to walk, since I need to achieve détente between the warring cats.)
My envy of the glamorous woman in the café might be a message to myself that it is time I took a bit more effort with my appearance. Get rid of my chin hair and buy a bottle of patchouli oil.
Eleanor Catton is a tougher one.
I'm never going to be able to write a Booker prize winner. But perhaps what I am really jealous of is that beautiful feeling when you create something. And I can do that. I should get back to writing my morning pages. Also, I should ask my talented neighbour to give me some piano lessons.
And there is no law that says you have to have a thigh gap to wear jeans. I should go and buy a pair of baggy jeans. And then I could put a picture on Instagram #fatarseandIdontcare.

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