It happened again for the nth time last week. On a morning jog through my neighborhood, I saw a charmingly updated house, and my mind was pulled down the envy hole.

It's not so much that I wanted that house, but I became mopey and compared myself to the strangers I imagined living there. I felt resentment, because they have a home that looks nicer than mine, and I wondered why they seemed to have more taste and money. I decided it's because they've made better life choices, so they must simply be better people and happy in ways I am not.

I know I'm being silly, making up stories in my head about people I don't know and beating myself up in ways that aren't useful. But I can't help it. I hear about the good fortunes of someone else, or see someone enjoying advantages I think I lack, and the envy monster rears up from somewhere inside and starts to suck me down.

Taming the envy monster often means acknowledging that the green creature exists and deciding not to let him get you.
Taming the envy monster often means acknowledging that the green creature exists and deciding not to let him get you. (Ron Borresen/Bradenton Herald/MCT)

"He who envies others has no peace of mind." So said Buddha. A more contemporary guru, TV shrink Dr. Phil, said the first step in taming envy is to admit it.

So, I'm admitting it, though I can't help but feel like I'm going out on a limb. Envy is the deadly sin people are least likely to admit to because of its implied pettiness. And, compared with other indulgences such as laziness or gluttony, it's the least fun.

But I know I'm not alone in harboring this internal fiend. For one thing, I read about all the plugged-in people coping with "Facebook envy," the sense of discontentment and even "suicidal despair" (as NBC's Brian Williams put it) that arises from viewing social media images of your friends' amazing vacations and fashion choices, lovely children and fulfilling social lives.


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Writers of a certain ideological stripe have asserted that America is in the grips of an envy "epidemic," stemming from a post-Great Recession resentment of the rich. This "wealth envy" is not just damaging to American culture, they say, but harmful to individuals, leading to destructive social comparison.

I don't want to get into the argument about growing income inequality, but I will admit to engaging in destructive social comparison. It happened when I was on that morning jog. It happens whenever I read articles in glossy magazines about the high-achieving lifestyles of Bay Area tech entrepreneurs.

In fact, this kind of comparison is pretty common here in the Bay Area, notably in the Silicon Valley, where we're inundated with media stories about people hitting it big, says Santa Clara University psychology professor Thomas Plante. He has clients, as well as neighbors, consumed by feelings of inadequacy because they have only sold their startups for several million dollars instead of hundreds of millions.

Actually, my envy monster is less concerned with others' material accomplishments. Thankfully, it doesn't prick me in regards to my family or when I hear a friend has dropped a few pounds and is looking fabulous.

It mostly pops up when I learn about other's professional accomplishments, as in learning that a friend or colleague has gotten a book deal or published some potentially award-winning piece of journalism. Notably, I have a friend I've been reluctant to reconnect with. In catching up, I'd not only be envy challenged in hearing about her expat life in Europe and Greek vacations, but in hearing that she's finished her second novel.

In a related twist, the monster expresses itself in schadenfreude. That's the German word describing the pleasure we get from the misfortune of others. Here is where envy really gets ugly.

Perhaps you've heard the quote: "It is not enough to succeed; one's friends must fail." Variations on that quote have been attributed over the centuries to such famously ambitious and cutthroat types as Genghis Khan, Gore Vidal and Larry Ellison. For me, it happens more than I care to admit, as in when hearing that my friend in Europe is still struggling to sell her second novel to a publisher.

I know, I'm bad. I'm very, very bad. As I've suggested above, I don't want to be this way. So, what to do?

Well, I've taken Dr. Phil's first step. I've admitted my envy problem. He and a therapist friend also say I can address it by deconstructing my feelings, stop making assumptions about other people's lives and changing my internal dialogue.

Maybe the monster is there to remind me that, yes, there are ways I'd like to make changes. In this way, the monster can be useful -- just as long as I choose aspirations that are realistic to obtain. I can stop beating myself up about my lack of a book deal because I don't have the book idea in me -- not right now, anyway.

I can also continue to offer congratulations or condolences to friends for their good and bad news. The sentiment I fake could actually become genuine, which would be nice. I can also spend time each day thinking of all the things in my life that I'm grateful for.

But what really helps is acknowledging that the envy monster will never go away. That's just being realistic. It will pop up again, maybe today. But I'll tell it: I see you, I know you, and I'm not going to let you take me down.

Life stories is a rotating column by staff reporters and writers. Martha Ross can be reached at mross@bayareanewsgroup. Follow her at Twitter.com/marthajross.