"What's wrong with me? my friend Alice asked. "My sister was lonely for a long time, and when she found someone, I was really glad for her. Then she told me her new boyfriend wrote her a book of love poems—and I had this feeling that somehow I'd been wronged. I thought, Nobody writes poetry for me! Then, My life sucks. But I'm happily married! I don't want to trade places. Why am I being so petty?"

Ah, envy. The green-eyed monster that stalks our minds, devouring our best intentions. How lovely it would be if we could destroy envy simply by thinking Stop it! Unfortunately, that never works; attacking negative feelings makes them grow stronger. But if you can understand the assumptions that drive envy and replace them with more useful beliefs, your monstrous emotions will relax, allowing generosity to awaken.

The first step is to stop blaming yourself. You were set up for a lifetime of comparison and competition literally from your first breath. When you were born, a doctor or nurse probably assigned you an Apgar score, a number that indicated how your muscle tone, heart rate, and other variables measured up. Throughout toddlerhood, the assessments continued as your height, weight, and other attributes were constantly compared with those of your peers. In the sandbox, you probably weren't aware of your progress—but whoa, Nellie, along came school. With every test, report card, and athletic event, you got another ranking. Then, eventually, you most likely joined the working world, competing for jobs and striving to outperform colleagues.

By the time we reach adulthood, we're comparing continuously, almost reflexively: Is she smarter than I am? Richer? Does she have nicer legs, clothes, children? While driving ourselves toward success, we might even guiltily hope others will fall behind, because we've learned that for one person to win, many must lose. We may actually feel threatened when good fortune befalls someone else, even someone we love deeply.

Some say the dog-eat-dog mind-set is natural law: The beastie who nabs the most hot-ticket items like food and mates will pass on his genes, while his weaker cohorts die off. Competition is how humans became the dominant species, by God!

So we think—but not everyone agrees. For example, in rural South Africa, I've met many people who don't have access to the material resources that I do, to say the least. They could feel envy and resentment, yet they treat me with enormous warmth and generosity. My African friends tell me this stems from their philosophical grounding in ubuntu. The word, which has no direct English translation, essentially means "I am because we are."

Ubuntu reminds us that humans didn't become a dominant species by competing. We did it by cooperating. In small villages surrounded by threatening wild animals, each person is precious, and sharing brings abundance. If one villager learns a skill—say, a new way of growing food—she benefits more from teaching others than from using her knowledge to compete against them. When her neighbors thrive, they increase the group's collective resources; there's more for everyone, and the village is stronger as a whole.

This is the lesson Alice needs to teach her green-eyed monster, which is bellowing our culture's favorite lies—stories of competition and scarcity. Kindly but firmly, she must teach it the stories that highlight ubuntu. You can do this with your own monster. For every envy story in you, there's an ubuntu alternative. As you read each ubuntu example below, try to think of concrete facts from your life to support it. I predict that you'll recall many times when things got better for you because they went well for someone else.

Envy's Story: If someone else has good fortune, there won't be enough left for me.

Ubuntu's Story: Human well-being is not a zero-sum game. Wanting the best for each other creates a feeling of abundance—and possibility.

Envy's Story: I need to be just like [my sister, my boss, Angelina Jolie], only better.

Ubuntu's Story: We are all unique and incomparable. I thrive by fulfilling my own destiny, not anyone else's.

Envy's Story: If I had what she has, I'd be happy.

Ubuntu's Story: A positive life situation isn't the cause of happiness, it's the result of happiness. Happiness comes from acknowledging that I am enough.

If you make a habit of replacing your stories of envy with stories of ubuntu, then you can begin to create new pathways in your brain, paths to a more relaxed and openhearted world view.

Alice looked for ubuntu experiences from her own life: Had she benefited from her sister's happiness? Well, since they no longer talked incessantly about her sister's loneliness, Alice had felt more seen and understood. The new boyfriend was a warm, funny presence at family gatherings. He also helped Alice reprogram her smartphone. As she dwelt on such thoughts, Alice realized her sister's happiness was actually increasing her own.

As Alice practiced moving from envy to ubuntu, it slowly stopped mattering who had written poems to whom. What did matter—what could change Alice's entire outlook—was that instead of telling herself My life sucks, she was focusing on a truer story: Our life rocks. Now she, her sister, and the men they love can celebrate their good fortune together while the envy monster snores in the background, blessedly asleep at last.


Good to Know

Like ubuntu, these words have no English equivalent, but they capture universal matters of heart and soul.

Cwtch Welsh (rhymes with butch), literally "a cupboard or cubbyhole": a heartwarming hug from a loved one

Chi Ku Chinese, literally "to eat bitterness": ability to go through hard times,overcome challenges, and persevere

Nam Jai Thai, literally "water" and "heart": willingness to make sacrifices for others and extend hospitality to strangers

Martha Beck's latest book is Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.


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