Staring a new year in the face brings dreams of success both big and small: from losing a couple of pounds to drinking less, running a great 10k time, starting a business, being promoted – our new years’ resolutions cover a multitude of possibilities. The hope that they hold is both exciting and exhilarating. But with success comes envy, and sadly it’s our closest peers who will feel most unsettled by our achievements and we by theirs. This unspoken truth can leave us confused – we want our friends to be happy yet these horrid and poisonous feelings creep in. Bitterness, envy, resentment, disdain, threat or feelings of inferiority all come with the territory of someone else’s success.
But these emotions are natural and don’t make us ‘bad people’. Evolutionary psychologists explain how they enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety). So, the negative emotions felt when someone similar succeeded was a motivation to readdress the balance and to do better yourself. Say for example, a friend had better spoils from hunting, the discomfort would motivate you to take action so that you and your family had an equal chance of survival as theirs. Importantly, this comparison mattered most when it was amongst peers, rather than someone in another tribe. This is why our friends may feel more uncomfortable about our success than people who are only acquaintances.
Fast forward several thousand years and these emotions are complicated by cultural responses. While countries such as the USA hold success up as something to be celebrated (e.g. people such as Oprah Winfrey are heralded in the media as ‘The Name of Success’) in the UK, we are equally celebratory about someone successful failing (e.g. when Branson’s balloon didn’t make it around the globe the headlines read Branson’s ‘glorious failure’). A cousin who worked in the USA and has now returned to Australia has noticed the same cultural contrast and mentioned something called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” described as “a tendency in Australian society to try and cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent (cutting the tall poppies down to size). Australians generally don’t like others to do too well.” Gossip, disapproval, discrediting or undermining others in the way we belittle attempts such as Branson’s, all serves to bring people back down to size. Every day examples may sound like: “Do you know that she only lost 4lb because she cut out all carbohydrates, that’s so dangerous and there’s no way she’ll be able to maintain it.” or “He only got promoted because he went on that trip with the boss and had his ear for 48 hours.” I’m not suggesting that the USA is free from these tendencies nor that every Brit or Australian detests the success of their peers but culture certainly plays its part in exacerbating the issue.
So, what do you do if you feel a bit of envy creeping in:
- Celebrate your friends’ success – it will help take away the sting.
- Recognise that it’s normal (and does not pose a threat to your survival).
- Decide what to do: unhelpful responses – engage with or suppress the emotion. helpful responses – acknowledge and accept the emotion, leave it alone and move on. Or use it to motivate you to achieve equal success
- Acknowledge that outward success shows no indication of the inward life that someone is leading – their personal struggles, trials and tribulations. Take for example Robin Williams, his numerous awards indicate someone who would be envied by his peers, yet he was a troubled man who took his own life.
- Celebrate your friends’ success (yes again)!
And when facing the envy of others:
- See negativity directed your way for what it is – a display of a primitive emotion and a need for that person to make themselves feel better.
- Try not to inadvertently flaunt your success to people who are struggling to achieve. This may seem obvious but in the excitement of our own achievements we can forget to stop and think about how other people may be feeling.
- Keep going – negativity can make you feel like you want to stop, after all that will make any scorn go away. You may fear you’ll lose your friends or subconsciously believe that you need to moderate how far you go. But just because others haven’t achieved what you have that doesn’t mean you should hold yourself back. Your real friends will stick with you however high you soar. Shoot for the stars!
Happy New Year and may you achieve all you set out to in 2018!
N.B. While celebration of success in the USA has its positives it also has more negative connotations such as blaming those who do not make it for not trying hard enough.
 Oxford Dictionaries blog
CHAPTER The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy, Sarah E. Hill and David M. Buss pp. 61. In Envy: Theory and Research by Richard Smith (2008)