Philosopher Nietzsche had a term Lebensneid representing “life envy”. I think most of us are familiar to some degree with the nagging feeling that if only your life was more like that life over there, you would be so much more content. I wonder if we are feeling more and more life envy as we become more and more exposed to others lives, constantly bombarded with images and stories of how other people live. I mean we even have news stories about tiffs over who gets to claim the title of lifestyle guru, and who is just a faker. The power to feed our life envy in a job title.
Life envy does seem to be connected to the plethora of life choices we have available to us. In her wonderful book, Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a Hmong community she visits in Vietnam and how few choices the people there have in how their life will unfold. The surprise is that because of this they actually seem to have less angst about the state of their life. Choice brings with it doubt. There is always another option not chosen. There is always a “what if?” Perhaps life envy is an externalized version of “what if?” turned into dull but distracting coveting.
What can we do when we are caught in Lebensneid, convinced that our life is lacking in comparison, that they are having better sex, better relationships, a better body, a better orgasm…? We can recognize that these things are incomparable. Trying to reduce the seductive call of all those things out there that we cannot actually do anything with or about will allow us to feel more empowered. Really Gwyneth Paltrow or Jay Cutler do not have something you want. What will make you happy is totally unique to you, shaped by interconnected elements of who you are. It will involve choices and sacrifices that only you can judge. It will also involve joys and satisfactions that are only for you.
We all have our moments of the grass looking greener over there out of reach. It seems to be human nature to feel longing. And we are invited by our consumer culture, where happiness is just one purchase away, to ask ourselves, “Am I fulfilled? Is this as good as it gets?” Look around you, not at what others have, but at what you have. Some of it may be pretty amazing as is. Some of what you have may be raw material to work with in creating something amazing. Don’t fall into the passive disengagement that goes hand in hand with life envy. Be inspired by what is possible but know that happiness will only be found in your own life, not in the imagined life of someone else.