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On the Outside Looking in on Happiness
By Patti Armstrong
It was a bad day. Even now, you can’t shake the feeling of failure. Then, you go to Facebook. While trying to pick yourself up, seeing your friends’ amazing lives makes you feel even lower. It seems that everyone is having a wonderful life, while you sit with a big “L” on your forehead.
The impression that others have mastered the art of living while we are mere novices, comes easily these days. Facebook is one of the biggest offenders. Several studies reveal that Facebook use leads to unhappiness. By showcasing people’s best versions of themselves, comparisons follow, tempting us to believe that we don’t measure up.
But is it wrong to feel sad when seeing the success and happiness that evades us? And if so, what can we do about it? Whether one’s sadness comes from envy or is simply a healthy reminder of a missing good in one’s own life depends on our own choices, according to Father Angel Perez-Lopez, formation adviser and assistant professor of philosophical ethics and sacred moral theology at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.
“First, we need to understand what envy is,” he said. “It’s sadness over the good of another because we wanted to be the one.” He explained that pride and vain glory are at the root of envy. “For instance, in a group of priests, if I want to be the best preacher in the diocese, then I hear a brother priest gives a fantastic homily, I feel sad about it because it interferes with me being No. 1,” he said. “Envy causes sadness when I see the good of another as bad for me because I want to excel in a vain way.”
One way to detect envy is the desire to dismiss the good of another or to speak badly of others, Father Perez-Lopez pointed out. He said that, at an extreme, it can lead even to murder. The Bible contains several such instances, such as Cain killing Abel, King Saul seeking David’s death and Joseph’s treatment by his brothers. In all cases, it was not the good of the other that drove the murderous desires, but the belief that the good standing of others made them less.
But how can feelings be our fault? Why would envy be a sin, since no one wants to feel bad? Father Perez-Lopez explained that we tend to think that all our feelings are morally neutral, but we need to distinguish antecedent from consequent feelings. According to him, envy is a feeling of sadness that is a consequence of our choices. For this reason, we are morally responsible for it.
He gave the example of a kid who wants to be first in his class. When a classmate gets an A, and he gets a B, he feels sad about his classmate. His desire was not just to do his best, but also to be the best in the group for his own vain glory, so anyone doing better than him gets him upset.
A good remedy for envy is to understand the unique place we have in the history of salvation, Father Perez-Lopez explained. “A person can remedy feeling sad by realizing how much God loves him and that God has a plan for him,” he said. “God doesn’t ask us to be the best of everyone, just to be our best.”
He pointed out that the culture tells us to be No. 1, but, instead, we need to understand that we have a mission of good to accomplish that is ours alone. The family of saints gives us this example, Perez-Lopez said. “They are all happy for the good they did and also for the good of the others because they trace it all back to the goodness of God.”
In situations where a person suffers from a real loss or struggles with a difficulty, Father Perez-Lopez said that feeling sad about it is not envy, but rather a natural and healthy emotion of grieving. So if someone’s marriage has failed, yes, it will likely make them sad at times to hear of the happy wedding anniversaries of others, according to him. The point, however, is to use that emotion to strive for something better. “For instance,” he said, “if my priesthood is not going the way it should, it’s good that I’m sad about it, and I should use that to overcome my failings with the grace of God.”
People speak of good envy when speaking of admiration, but Father Perez-Lopez pointed out that admiring the good qualities of others is not envy. “If I look at St. John Vianney and wish I had that same spirit of self-denial, I’m not experiencing envy,” he said. “I'm experiencing admiration — a healthy feeling to strive for greater perfection. I’m not competing, but pointing out an area that I can grow in my life.”
“Admiration and a healthy sadness are good things, but envy is evil,” he said. “The problem is when the good of another makes us sad because of our desire to be better than him.”
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