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Gratitude is the Antidote to Envy

What are you grateful for? A question on a napkin with a cup of espresso coffee.When Tom Brady and the Buccaneers were beaten in the NFL playoffs last winter, many people who don’t live in Tampa Bay rejoiced. Schadenfreude is a German word that means finding joy in another’s misfortune or struggle. In fact, it’s part of the fun of sports, where you can indulge the dark side of these natural human emotions without feeling guilty. For those of us in Kansas City, it’s been especially fun to be on the Chiefs’ bandwagon in recent years. Face it - we humans are instinctively tribal animals, and there’s something that feels deeply gratifying when our tribe vanquishes the competitors and victory is ours.
A zero-sum game is a simple idea that when one person gains, the other must person lose - like in boxing, poker, or war. For sure, there are times when we must adopt a dog eat - dog mentality, say when you’re trying to win the Superbowl, get into a prestigious school, compete for a mate, or do almost anything that involves a lawyer.
And life in America in the 1st century seems more hypercompetitive than ever. Even so, most of the time we humans do best when we avoid the winner-take-all attitude and look for ways to make life a win-win proposition. Candice Millard, a widely acclaimed author who lives and works in KC, wrote, “My advice (for what it’s worth) for success and happiness: Compete with yourself and root for everybody else.”
We are the omnipotent masters of the world, and our technological power and collective intelligence are rising exponentially. But this is only possible because the human race now functions like one global interconnected being. The secret of the phenomenal success of the Homo sapiens species is that we all are like one giant organism. When a creative genius comes up with a transformative invention, we all benefit from it. A brilliant anonymous person in the region that is now eastern Poland/western Ukraine dreamed up the wheel about 5,500 years ago. Their oxen-pulled wheeled carts allowed them to expand across Europe and displace all the hunter-gatherers who were living there. As a result, today you get to work on wheels, rather than by foot.
Each one of us is analogous to a single cell in the giant complex organism that is life on Earth, and now the internet is like our collective brain. From that perspective, it’s humbling to imagine how hard it would be for any one of us to survive on our own - like a single cell removed from the body, a person left to fend for themself out in the wild wouldn’t last long.
Objectively, nearly all of us today are way better off today than, say, even the king of England was in 1500. Your house is comfortably climate-controlled no matter what the weather, and you have a giant-screen TV to watch a vast array of entertainment. You fly safely around the US and the world at near super-sonic speeds and have access to life-saving drugs and procedures that our ancestors could have not even imagined - our life expectancy has doubled in the last century. And then there’s that all-knowing rectangular electronic device in your pocket. Not one of these astounding technologies for improving the quality and quantity of life that we now take for granted was available to even the wealthiest person in the world 100 years ago. Yet, when we look around and see someone who is doing a little better than we are, it tends to cause angst.
For some strange reason, there is a nefarious emotion called jealousy deeply embedded in the Homo sapiens’ brain software. Oscar Wilde said, “Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.” Humans are funny that way - someone we know has some good luck or does something great, and often this negative emotion called envy wells up, which is a disguised form of hostility based on one’s own insecurity. We each have only a few dozen people with whom we are personally connected. When something good happens to someone in our little circle of family/ friends/coworkers, it should be a reason to celebrate their victory.
When I see someone accomplishing their dreams, I remind myself to be genuinely happy for them and pass long hearty congratulations. My wife Joan says that when she sees a person who is succeeding wildly, she tells herself, “Don’t be envious, be inspired.” Joseph Epstein said, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” To refresh your memory, during the 14th century Dante Alighieri wrote a poem called Inferno, in which he listed the seven deadly sins as lust, gluttony, sloth, greed, wrath, pride, and envy. Harboring jealously is like holding a grudge. Buddy Hackett joked, “I don’t carry a grudge. While you carry the grudge, the other guy is out dancing.”
Your brain and heart are linked by a high-bandwidth nerve connection that instantaneously transmits your emotions to your heart. Feelings of grief, anger, fear, and envy are toxic to your heart. Of the cardiotoxic emotions, jealousy ought to be the easiest to avoid. There is no personal upside to feelings of envy. In contrast, when thankfulness, joy, or love registers in your heart, these feelings tend to lower blood pressure and improve your cardiac health. For many people, social media can stoke feelings of envy. If that’s the case for you, it may be best to limit the time you spent on Facebook, Instagram, etc.
Another great way to neutralize envy is to think grateful thoughts. Gratitude arises when you remind yourself of the positive aspects of your life, and it turns out to be a very effective strategy to neutralize envy. Practicing gratitude has been shown to increase one’s sense of well-being and improve heart health. Laura Redwine at the University of California, San Diego did a simple but remarkable randomized-controlled trial (our gold-standard way to test a therapy) involving 70 individuals who had early-stage heart disease. Half of them were asked to keep a daily gratitude journal, whereas the control group was treated as usual. The gratitude journal group was told, “For the next eight weeks you will be asked to record 3 to 5 things for which you are grateful on a daily basis. Think back over your day and include anything, however small or great, that was a source of gratitude that day. Make the list personal, and try to think of different things each day.” Impressively, gratitude journaling lowered levels of harmful inflammation and improved heart rate variability - a measure of cardiac health and resilience.
An old English proverb says, “Envy shoots at others and wounds itself.” On the other hand, a grateful heart tends to attract blessings and cultivate well-being. You choose.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD, FACC