Have you ever found yourself in a funk about something and you weren’t sure why? Maybe your coworker just got a raise, your sister just got her Masters degree, your brother just bought the most lavish house or your friend is moving away to start a family in the suburbs. With all this great mojo going on around you, why can’t you seem to be happy yourself?
Being happy for others may not come naturally for everyone. After all, we all have a competitive spirit. But when you find you’re able to feel happiness simply because others are happy, you gain a fresh perspective on life.
I’ll admit it. I wasn’t always eager to be happy for other people. In fact, when I was growing up I only had two speeds: neutral or downright jealous of others.
This included wanting to have better things than my friends. I’d watch other little girls open presents at their birthday parties and definitely felt nothing but envy. Parents would also stand around and make excited noises as a child opened a gift and I wondered, “What are they excited about? Do they also want a Barbie?”
I was unable to be happy simply because I saw that my friend was happy. I was mired in my own feelings and desires (i.e., I want a new Barbie!). Sometimes I was just utterly bored (i.e., Who cares that Mallory has a new toy? Why are we watching this?).
Let’s just say that being happy for others didn’t come naturally to me. I grew up in a family that counted everyone else’s money. If you told a story at a family get-together about catching a big fish, somebody would have to chime in about the time they caught a fish twice that size. Newsflash: jealous people raise jealous kids.
This also translated to celebrities. I remember hating the actor Jena Malone, you know, the brilliant young girl in “Step Mom.” The only reason why was because she was famous, beautiful and talented. She appeared in the latest “Hunger Games” movies and I had this kneejerk reaction, “Ugh, I hate Jena Malone.” My friend looked at me surprised and said, “Really?”
I was a little surprised myself to feel this old, silly vestige rise up. I told him the truth: “Not really, I’ve just always been jealous of her. She’s actually great.”
It’s saying things like that that actually can turn the happiness blinders off and help you stop focusing so much on yourself. Instead of having a kneejerk reaction to a person or an event, I call myself out and try to get to the root of what I’m feeling. If I don’t like this cheerleader, although I don’t know her at all, what’s really going on here? Well, it’s probably because she’s perky and popular. Maybe I wish I was more upbeat. Maybe I wish I had more friends, but immediately writing people off like I did that cheerleader isn’t going to get me new friends. Once I started to say how I felt out loud, I was actually paying people compliments left and right.
As you get older, the stakes are different. You may envy the big house, the new car, the executive pay raise, etc. I had a friend who watched a documentary about Beyoncé and Jay Z and had a tremendously negative reaction to it. “Of course their life’s wonderful,” he said. “They’re riding around on their yacht in the Caribbean.” He said he didn’t want to hear about how much they love their work or their marriage, as if to say anyone with millions of dollars should love life.
When I saw the same film, I was baffled. I found everything the couple said to be very moving. In fact, I’m relieved and excited to see two uber-successful young artists really appreciating and mirroring all that love and positivity we slather them with. That doesn’t always happen.
I think the big questions I have to ask myself when I’m in a place where I can see nothing but envy is: Is it going to hurt me to just be happy for this person? If I just let go of my envy, what does it cost me?
Being envious wastes a lot of time and energy. When I admit to myself that I’m being jealous and let go of that jealousy, I feel unburdened. I feel free.
The success of others isn’t personal. It wasn’t done to spite you. It costs nothing to remove your own desires from the equation and feel relief and happiness for another person. In the end, acknowledging the fact that things are going well for other people compiles evidence that things will probably work out for you, too.