Monday, September 20, 2010


Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, made a sweeping generalization about the nature of happiness, "Envy is toxic."

I first found this to be true after site visits in Africa.  Envy sabotaged Peace Corps trainees' happiness.  Before seeing our future homes that we would be living in for the next two years, we were naive optimists excited about every little thing, every little difference, writing letters home about all the amazing differences and how we were surviving them, the heat and massive thunderstorms drumming on aluminum roofs, the squat toilets, the markets, the people, the lack of electricity and water, hand washing our clothes, taking bucket baths, eating wild porcupine.  We had no idea what to expect about our future homes.  

When asked during our site placement interviews, what kind of place do you want to live in, our lack of experience and knowledge about African villages and Peace Corps homes in those villages, made our answers meaningless.  I remember saying, "I want a place with as few mosquitoes as possible."  What else could I ask for?  a place with electricity, running water, Internet, a host family,  vegetables and fruit, a close by Peace Corps neighbor, a hut with a grass roof, a house, a city apartment, an indoor bathroom?

After site visits, trainees returned to the training site excited and ready to describe their new homes in great detail.  This is when a shift happened in the overall mood of the group.  A few people started feeling envious.... What?  You have a tiled bathroom, 20 couches, and 10 empty rooms in a mansion?  Really?  You have electricity?  I didn't even know that was a possibility.  What?  You have a western toilet?  Serious?  Woah!!  You have an internet bar in your city?  Hmm... I've got bats and poop covering the floors of my house.  My walls are dirty and horrible.  My village only has onions.  I have no latrine.  I have to walk a kilometer down a hill to fetch water to carry back up the hill to my house.  

The envious few turned the initial optimism of the group into complaint sessions and no longer was there an overall positive mood anymore.  Instead things became more stressful and people started thinking about going back home to the USA.  For a few, happiness was replaced by envy through comparing what they had to what others had.  

How do we prevent envy from entering our lives?  For some reason, I just don't care what others have, find that what I do have is great and often wish I had even less; however, envy doesn't always enter the picture though materialism.  There are other ways envy can rear its ugly head like when you start comparing your personality and looks to others, or when you are single and start comparing yourself to so many happy couples.  For me, I stop envy by trying my best to stop comparing with a judgement of better or worse.  I look around me and just say "Wow.  They're different.  They have different things, have different personalities and talents, and different lives.  Cool.  Neato."

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