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I publicly made some envious comments about a friend's success Add to ...

THE QUESTION

I won't say what field I'm in, but let me say I have a friend who consistently does better in it than I do. In fact, he's become quite famous. I try to be happy for him, and mostly I am, but every once in a while I succumb to the little green monster known as envy.

Recently my friend won an award and I was asked to give a speech. But it was an award I secretly felt I deserved, and I guess my envy was apparent. I made what I thought were appropriate roast-type comments, but later at home my girlfriend said: "It was a good speech, but it was obvious you were jealous of him." She said she talked to a couple of other people during the party who said they felt the same thing.

How embarrassing! Now I've exposed myself to everyone as an envious jerk. How do I convince people I'm happy for this guy's success, and not the opposite?

THE ANSWER

What's said can't be unsaid and anything you do say will only make it worse in classic he-doth-protest-too-much fashion.

But you've got to deal with the envy. You have to nip that polyp before it metastasizes into something that will munch you up like a bad cabbage.

Gore Vidal famously said, "Every time a friend of mine succeeds, I die a little."

And we all laugh at that - "ha ha, good one, Gore."

But real envy isn't funny, in my view. I'm more inclined to go along with the writer Joseph Epstein, who said: "Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all."

True.

Pride, lust, gluttony, greed - even sloth and anger - carry a certain satisfaction when you give in to them. But envy corrupts; it poisons the spirit. Remember Salieri from the movie Amadeus? So sick with it, he cursed God and did everything in his power to destroy the young upstart Mozart. It's a spot-on portrait of what envy can do: make you plot, scheme and hide your true motives - often from the people you call your friends.

About the only good thing to be said about this corrosive emotion is, it does seem to be part of human nature.

An experiment conducted by two British economists in 2002 found that two out of three students playing a computer gambling game would vote to have another student's winnings diminished, even if it meant no gain to them - and many were willing to pay as much as 25 cents for every dollar taken away from one of the winners.

Charming, isn't it? Kids, I notice, make no bones about it: If I give one of my boys a cookie that has even two fewer chocolate chips in it than his brother's, he's liable to burst into tears, wail and bemoan his fate, and curse the powers that be (me) for their injustice. (It's only as you get older you learn to hide your envy, like a knife in the boot.)

It might be monkey nature, too. At Emory University, researchers found capuchin monkeys could be taught to trade a small plastic token for a piece of cucumber. And they were very happy with that - unless they spotted a monkey in a neighbouring cage getting a grape in exchange for their token. Then the capuchin with the cucumber would freak out and even toss his cuke out of the cage in a fit of rage.

Sound familiar?

None of this lets you off the hook, though. Just because university students, kids and monkeys do something doesn't mean it's right. We are trying to become evolved, superior beings here.

I'm not saying lose your envy altogether. Envy is ambition's darker, sharper side, and sometimes that burning feeling in your guts can spur you to greater heights.

But there are such things, I think, as healthy envy and toxic envy, and it sounds like you're edging toward the latter end of the spectrum. Ratchet it back, bub. Joke about it with your girlfriend. Your envy needs to get out in the sunshine and fresh air, where things fester less and heal faster.

The good news is: I think it is something we (ideally) grow out of a bit as we get older. I still get twinges, but I have to say I feel it less often, and less keenly, than I once did. Time was, when someone would say: "Hey, Dave, didja hear, so-and-so got a life-changing advance for his book; now they're flying him to Paris to meet with Martin Scorsese to discuss the film adaptation," etc. and my guts would be churning.

Now, though, not so much. I'm not exactly sure why. I'm still as ambitious as ever. But lately I've found myself almost ... happy for my friends when they have some big success.

I think it might be because I have more on my plate. These days I hardly have the energy to lift my weary head from my own labours to hear the far-off applause of the crowd as one of my friends or colleagues receives yet another award, prize or giant cheque.

And so that's my advice to you. Get busy. Crank up the heat under your own work ethic.

Immerse yourself. If you're not loving what you do, find the thing you love and do that. And I think you'll find if you're working to capacity you'll stop caring who's getting the prizes and movie deals.

And of course that's when they'll start to roll in. Then your friends and colleagues and loved ones will have to wrestle with their dark, secret feelings of envy toward you.

And won't that be pleasant?

David Eddie is a screenwriter and the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad.

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