One of the loveliest aspects of getting older is seeing your friends achieve career and life goals – and now that I’m in my thirties, friends and peers have had their books published, popped up on news channels offering expertise, appeared in primetime TV dramas and achieved internet fame. This year, someone with whom I was at university was actually nominated for an Oscar. Back in my twenties, being in proximity to such success would have likely upended my sense of self and sent me spinning in doubt, but now I feel nothing but pride (if I really like the person) or indifference (if they're more of a distant acquaintance). OK, if I see a person whom I believe to be positively undeserving of success achieve great things, I’ll raise an eyebrow – but, overwhelmingly, my response to witnessing the celebrated personal and professional achievements of those I know is positive.
I’ve even tested myself, after friends have told me wonderful news, to see if I can stir an envy. I’ve sat ruminating on their achievements, considering the financial benefits or the prospect of awards, and felt nothing but goodwill. I feel that perhaps I have outgrown envy. I can be mean and disparaging and angry, but the specifics of envy – the gnawing miserableness of it – have been left behind.
From earliest childhood, I remember harbouring envy towards my peers, especially other girls. I coveted their hair or talents or stationery; I stole a fancy pencil sharpener from another girl when I was five even though I could never use it – doing so would identify me as the culprit – just so that I could deprive her of it. Through school and university and my early career, I don’t think I was ever the most envious of the women around me, but it was an emotion I knew well.
Girls are encouraged to envy each other; we pit them against each other from when they’re tiny little things and continue to rate them and divide them into adulthood. Our celebrity magazines present “wearing the same dress as another woman” as a sort of battle that can be won and lost. We rank women on their attractiveness – and we give them a sell-by date for extra pressure. Girls and women grow up and enter careers aware that it is usually men who are at the top, and so the path to success for women can feel particularly competitive. We raise girls in envious hothouses, encouraging them to pretty and smart and nice – and prettier and smarter and nicer.
Girls and women grow up and enter careers aware that it is usually men who are at the top, and so the path to success for women can feel particularly competitive
Recognising those gendered constraints – and rejecting them – is an effective way to conquer envy. Consider Jo Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel that explored girlish envy with acuity and sophistication (pickled lime, anyone?). When Jo March began to earn money herself, she “enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants”. Likewise, I don’t find myself envying other women’s bikini bodies as fervently, now that I have written off the notion of bikini bodies as sexist and damaging.
My lack of envy may come across as weak to some as I know lots of people who claim that envy is a useful motivator – but while I recognise that there may some truth in that, I think there are better, kinder ways to inspire people. I’ve had bosses who motivated by encouraging competition and envy in their staff, and any success achieved in those circumstances felt depressing, a bit like losing five pounds via a diarrhoea bug.
As emotions go, envy strikes me as one of the most useless, and that’s become especially clear as I get older. The vagaries of life affect even those who have books published or appear in magazines, and, anyway, it seems that only the most deluded Donald Trump types can claim a straightforward correlation between success and “goodness”.
Overcoming envy has meant that I can feel pleased about my own accomplishments and pleased about the accomplishments of a raft of friends of acquaintances and colleagues. And multiplying a general sense of happiness is always going to be better than possessing a pencil sharpener that you can’t even use.