Have you ever caught yourself envying someone’s life — either a famous person’s or a friend’s — and feeling discontent in some way? I have, more often than I’d like to admit.
I envy certain aspects of other people’s lives: Wealth, property, and jobs and status. These are things that everyone knows it’d be nice to have. It’s reinforced in our social interactions, in which we inevitably talk about them — so and so just bought a house, got a promotion, or had a baby.
But I find an easy way out of a spiral of envy is to consider what that life I envy entails holistically. When I dig deeper and investigate what their life actually involves, I realise — I don’t want it. I just want bits of it.
In this piece, I’ll go over why we envy other people’s lives, how to think about what their lives actually entail, how to use envy to your advantage, and how to really figure out what you want.
Defining an Enviable Life
If you ask someone what their fantasy life would be, their first words would rarely be “a house and a baby.”
Yes, some people may want a house and a baby. There are some people whose lifelong goal is domestic life and parenting, and that’s fine.
But others I speak with start off by saying something like “I wish I could travel more,” or “I just want more time to get to the gym.” For them, children would be nice, but they’re not the goal; similarly, jobs and money are just a means to an end.
So, if those things — travel, hobbies, or whatever — are what we really want, then why don’t we do more of them? I posit that there are two reasons: 1. In many cases, they’re not what we really want, and 2. Doing those things doesn’t meet society’s definition of “success”.
Firstly, I think it’s important that we be honest with ourselves about what we really want out of life. This is hard!
Everyone lies along a spectrum of tolerance for risk and stability. Some people love to make risky decisions and to bet it all constantly, whereas others want the certainty of a nine-to-five job.
Similarly, some people want their lives to look different every day (or week or month), whereas others want to be in one place for the rest of their lives and get a lot of value out of long-term relationships with family, neighbours, and local businesses.
Knowing where you lie along that spectrum is important, but hard. There’s often a sexy answer and an honest one. It’s not sexy to say “I really want to be in one place for a long time,” but if it’s honest, then own it.
But conversely, if you really do want to uproot your life every month and live on the road, then it’s OK to say things like “I don’t want to own a house,” even though conventional wisdom dictates that you should.
And secondly, saying you want to travel more or have more time to go to the gym or play the guitar doesn’t meet the definition of what we’re told “success” looks like, because “success” follows externally defined metrics.
The Paradox of Envy: Externally Defined Success Metrics
Externally defined success metrics are what society, conventional wisdom, or our friends and family measure us with. They include things like a job or career, a house and car (or more than one of each), and a family. (Though I personally don’t aspire to have a family — I ruled that one out by asking myself a few questions.)
It’s “correct” to say things like you’re saving up for a car or putting money into your retirement savings. It’s “incorrect” to say that you only live life once and that you’d rather collect memories and stories, not wealth and assets.
It’s psychologically quite hard to break free of these goals that society imposes on us. Everyone around us pursues them and talks about them. Everyone else assesses us on them. This is what I talk about in the challenge of breaking free.
But if those goals are not the first things that come to your mind, then maybe you shouldn’t pursue them.
If you don’t lust after a career, a house, and a family, then attaining those things isn’t going to make you happy.
So, it begs the question: What do you really want out of life? If you dared imagine it, what would your ideal life be?
And what does it mean when we catch ourselves envying other people for their status, wealth, or other characteristics?
Envy for other’s apparent success means two things: Firstly, we want some aspect of other people’s lives — just not the whole package — and secondly, we want some of the feeling of having those things.
This is where I think envy comes in useful: It’s a signal of a primal unmet need. Envy is an emotional reaction that helps indicate that we need to change something.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean we want the whole package — we just want some element of what we’re envying.
Finding the Unmet Need
If I envy someone else’s nice car, then it’s tempting to say that I wish I had that car. Similarly, if I visit someone’s beautiful home, it’s tempting to wish I could live there.
But to have such a superficial response would do me a disservice. Instead, it’s worth investigating what the actual unmet need is that I’m envying.
For example, yes, it’d be nice to own that BMW 7-series in my friend’s driveway. But why do they have a BMW 7-series? It may be because a) they have to commute an hour each way to work, and so want to do so in comfort, b) because they have a large family they have to cart about to places, and c) because it’s part of their salary package from their company.
So while I would love to drive a 7-series sometimes, I do not want to commute anywhere, cart my family about, or have a job in which I’m compensated with a vehicle (or indeed any job at all).
Similarly, as nice as it is to visit someone’s beautiful house in the countryside, I know myself well enough to know that I’d be frustrated at how far I am from everything and how isolated I feel from the world. What meets someone else’s needs doesn’t meet mine.
But even if I don’t want those specific things and everything that comes with it, I still lust after the feeling of having those things.
When a friend of mine has a nice house, car, and family, they seem happy. Maybe they’re happy, or maybe they’re happy to have met these externally defined metrics, or maybe I’m projecting that they’re happy — they must be, as they have those things — even if that may not be the case.
Envy, thus, isn’t necessarily envy for those things; it’s envy for contentment, even if that’s an illusion. Thus, it shows that I’m not content about something. That means I should pursue whatever will bring me contentment — not those things themselves.
The same goes for you. Once you identify the things that you envy, hone in on the specific things you want to add to your life — and add them now.
Understanding Whose Life You Actually Want
When you realise you don’t want the exact life that your friend has (and thus aren’t tempted to “Single White Female” them), you have to figure out whose life you actually do want.
This is hard. It’s probably not someone on social media, because everything there is fake. And it’s probably not a celebrity or rich person, because most of them lead pretty boring lives anyway and they’re constantly under scrutiny.
The bad news is you’re probably going to have to define it for yourself, thinking about how you want to spend every day, year, and decade. The only person you’ll want to emulate is a future, ideal you!
The good news is that this makes things very concrete, to the point where you can start right now. If you want to spend your life on a sailboat, then you can start learning to sail right now. If you want to get a blackbelt in jiu-jitsu, then you can start training in BJJ right now. And so on.
The only person you really should envy is your future self. With that in imnd, you can now focus on transforming your present self into your future self as quickly as possible.