The idea of being pleased for others can feel like a foreign concept in our modern world. As it turns out, writes Sharon Stephenson, it is.
I once interviewed an elderly Jewish woman, a Holocaust survivor who’d seen and done things no human being should ever have to see and do.
But this remarkable woman refused to look backwards. In fact, she spent most of our conversation talking about her youngest grandson, who’d recently been accepted to Harvard University.
“There’s a Yiddish word – naches – which means great joy and pride in the achievements of others,” she explained. “Parents have it for children when they do something special, friends have it for their friends, colleagues for their colleagues, and so on.”
Her words leapfrogged over the years recently when I landed my dream job on this magazine. While most people were thrilled for me, I could tell that some hadn’t quite mastered the art of being happy for other people.
“How did you manage that,” asked a snippy acquaintance who deserves an Oscar for always thinking that someone else’s success is automatically a threat to hers.
“Wow, you’re lucky,” said another, in the kind of tone that suggested I’d only got the gig on luck not on talent or hard work.
I couldn’t be cross with them though, because I’ve done it too. Heck, show me someone who hasn’t felt pangs of envy at someone’s success, who’s never wanted what someone else has, and I’ll show you the late Mother Teresa.
Once, a few years back, when a friend won a travel writing prize in a category I’d entered, it felt as through someone had punched me in the stomach with the kind of mallet butchers use for tenderising meat. To make matters worse, my story wasn’t even shortlisted.
When I read the results online, my facial muscles flitted between anger and jealousy and I had to dig deep not to cry. And deeper still when I wrote my friend a congratulatory email, summoning all the naches by being as sweet as strawberry pie.
But I didn’t feel sweet – a fact I’m not proud of. I’m even less proud of throwing my phone across the room like a spoilt child (I cracked the screen, so karma got me).
But humans are competitive creatures by nature; it’s a trait that’s as old as since time itself. It took Aristotle in the 4th century BC to put a name to it, when he described feeling pain at another’s good fortune, of being upset by “those who have what we ought to have”. A thousand or so years later, Pope Gregory I made envy one of the seven deadly sins.
But neither he nor Aristotle could have known just how much worse it would get, when this thing called social media would blow up our feelings of jealousy at the lifestyle others have that we want.
Thanks to Instagram and Facebook, ours is the age of envy: food envy, travel envy, children envy, career envy, lifestyle envy… I’d be confident taking a bet there’s an envy for pretty much everything we experience in our daily lives.
“We live in a highly competitive society where we often equate our value in comparison to others’ lives,” UK psychologist Emily Kenny has said. “In the past, people might have just envied their neighbours, but now we compare ourselves with everyone around the world.”
And even though we all know content is filtered and that people are presenting the very best take on their lives, that doesn’t stop us from sometimes feeling inadequate, worthless and unhappy.
A 2018 survey by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram was the worst social media channel for promoting anxiety and depression. The poll of around 1500 social media users revealed that Instagram made them feel inadequate about their own lives and achievements, as well as jealous of other people’s lives.
So far, not so surprising. But how do we put jealously back into its cage? Experts say the key is to stop comparing ourselves to others.
“Your journey is unique and it’s important to honour your individuality,” says psychotherapist Amy Morin. “Whenever you catch yourself comparing your life to someone else’s, remind yourself that you’re not in a race. Your job is to do your best with what you’ve been given, regardless of what those around you have.” It also helps to reframe what Amy calls a “scarcity mindset”.
Whenever you catch yourself comparing your life to someone else’s, remind yourself that you’re not in a race
“Just because your neighbour is wealthy doesn’t mean he’s taking money away from you. And a co-worker’s promotion doesn’t mean you can’t have a good job too. There’s more than one perfect job out there.”
And let us never forget what the elderly Jewish woman told me at the end of our interview: “Every minute you waste resenting someone else’s success is 60 seconds you’ll never get back. Remember the word ‘naches’ and reach for it often.”
Amen to that.