How To Stop Envying Your Friends (And Beat Fomo)
Illustration by Mr Donghyun Lim
Two of my friends recently left to travel around Europe for six weeks. I haven’t seen any pictures or talked to them about their trip, but just knowing they’re out there while I’m at home, stuck inside, working, is enough to get me down in the dumps.
That’s not all. Not too long ago, my girlfriend got to go to India for work. Her tattoos are better than mine, too. One of my close friends is a guitar maestro, while I can barely strum a power chord. Other friends turn up to the pub amazingly dressed, while I look like a child playing dress-up. Another guy I know can not only run faster and farther than I can, but gets to travel around the world doing it. On the career front, a friend recently won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. This year, another guy I know signed a big book deal for a novel about a magic sausage – all the while, I’m struggling to get anyone to take my attempts at serious fiction, well, seriously.
It’s not that I’m not happy for these friends. The problem resides with me. If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m beset by envy. I have a nice life, good friends, a great dog. But, when I’m at my lowest – or even when I’m procrastinating – I can’t help but wish I was doing this, wearing that, hanging out with them. I don’t covet my neighbour’s house. Or his donkey. But the rest of his life looks pretty sweet.
In 2022, our collective envy is exacerbated by social media. We see someone doing something cool online and we get a sense of Fomo (fear of missing out) – by comparison, our own lives aren’t quite as good. So what’s going on?
“That Fomo is ubiquitous is hardly surprising,” says Ms Lou Campbell, psychologist at employee mental health experts Wellbeing Partners. “Social media use has exploded with 4.62 billion people now on social media, three times more than a decade ago,” she says.
Campbell adds that our work and social lives shifting online as a result of the Covid pandemic exacerbated the issue, increasing our experiences of feeling Fomo and online envy. The consequences of which can be increased sleep disturbances, stress, social anxiety and depression. “Engaging with the cultivated ‘reality’ of social media distorts our perception of reality and how we measure up,” Campbell explains.
Joe, 32, is a jazz musician based in Edinburgh. Much of his envy comes from a feeling of being left out. “Feeling envious mostly happened when scrolling through social media and seeing friends together, making me feel like I have been left behind,” he says.
As Campbell touched upon, Joe worries about how he measures up – to his friends, and society in general. “I think the fear of missing out is about my perfectionist nature,” Joe says. “I always put pressure on myself to be achieving the most and the best things possible in life. Seeing positive things I am not doing makes me question whether I have made the wrong choices, and if I should be doing things differently to be making the very most of my short time here on earth.”
As for seeing his friends do things without him, Joe explains “My fear that friends have moved on without me or that I am no longer part of the group is my own fear of rejection and abandonment.”
“If we think we are less than other members of our tribe, we will, on a survival level, think that we are in danger”
This is only natural. According to neuropsychologist Dr Rachel Taylor (founder of UNBroken) “Envy is part of our emotional repertoire. We’ve evolved in tribes and communities and have access to shared resources which may at times be limited.” In other words, envy, or Fomo, is ingrained in us through evolution and needing to compete for resources. Of course, with limited opportunities even today, each of us wants to make sure we’re really wringing all the juice from life.
“As humans, we are subject to social comparison in which we look at our own lives and compare with others either favourably or not – we compare upwards or downwards,” Taylor continues. “Our brains form an opinion of whether something or someone is better or worse than us. It can have a real effect on us mentally and physically. If we think we are less than other members of our tribe, we will, on a survival level, think that we are in danger – this is activated in the oldest part of our brain, which is there to ensure that we do survive.”
Envy is normal, then. Essential, even. But what can we do about it? I was interested to hear from other men who struggled with envy, but had managed to find a way around it. Lloyd, 33, is a firefighter and used to travel a lot before his first child was born. When a colleague recently embarked on a trip to South America – and kept an online diary of her trip – naturally, Lloyd pined for what used to be. The difference is, he no longer lets it get him down.
“Since starting my family, I have tried to accept that I am envious of certain things and that it’s all right to feel like that,” he says. “I remind myself that I have had similar experiences and I am happy that my colleague is now searching out her own adventures. I think people will always want what they can’t have. But, when my one-year-old son smiles and wants to play with me, I forget about feelings of envy. He is the greatest adventure that I’ve had, as clichéd as that is.”
“Shift your mental state by doing the unexpected”
Of course, we don’t have to be online to be envious; impeding metaverse aside, many of us are (thankfully) still perfectly adept at feeling envy IRL. Pedro, 39, is a strategy consultant. He explains that despite not being a huge fan of Coldplay, he’d heard so much hype about an upcoming concert that he paid over the odds for a last-minute ticket and ended up really enjoying himself at the gig. Here, his envy paid off, and pushed him to get out and have a good time. “This is the upside of Fomo,” says Pedro. “If you have Fomo and do something about it, often there is a strong sense of fulfilment.”
Using Fomo or envy to your advantage is a good idea. But it’s impractical to indulge every urge. And few of us would have the money (or inclination) to purchase an expensive Coldplay ticket on a whim. So, what else can we do?
“Shift your mental state by doing the unexpected,” advises Taylor. “Doing 10 burpees will challenge the body, the mind and the spirit, and will flood the brain with endorphins.” If burpees are too much of a challenge, Taylor suggests singing, which works to shift the nervous system into its optimal state – making you feel good instead of green.
Campbell suggests keeping a gratitude diary, recording in a journal three things each day that we are grateful for. “This trains the mind to focus on what we have rather than a perceived lack,” she explains. “This practice has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression and boost positive moods.”
This is the approach favoured by Lloyd, a recognition of duality in our lives and that while we might envy one friend, at times we’ll be the one being envied. It’s an almost Zen-like approach. Which made me wonder – how does an actual Buddhist monk deal with envy? “Envy arises as a mix of admiration and discontent,” says Mr Milan Kapetan, a Zen master who also goes by his formal name Shi Heng Dao.
“Envy is the shadow side of wisdom and success”
Kapetan explains that in Buddhist philosophy, feelings of envy are related to the element of air, and so breathing exercises are a good way to work through them. “When these thoughts arise, it is important to observe them rather than focusing on the outside stimulus that triggered them,” he advises. “Begin to turn your awareness to the arising sensations of the breath. Through this practice you will develop a better understanding of the self and the true nature and source of your envy.”
Metta is a Buddhist meditation about projecting loving kindness onto others and wishing them well. If we could do this fully with everyone we knew and truly want the best for them, it is hard to see how we would envy them.
Kapetan agrees with Taylor that envy is natural, seeing it as the counter-point to our drive for success. “All emotions have an equal opposite,” he says. “Happiness and sadness. Love and hate. Envy is the shadow side of wisdom and success. When we nurture our wisdom through internal and external body mind practices, a sense of fearlessness develops and we are more able to defeat feelings of envy and other negative emotions.”
“We cannot avoid Fomo completely, but we can know that we are not seeing the truth [about ourselves],” says Taylor. “I work with people to raise their value. I tell them to focus on their own appreciation as for many people, a low sense of their own worth drives the constant comparison.”
Crucially, it’s key to remember that all of us are hardwired to feel envy and in reality, feeling envious of someone else’s achievements says nothing about yourself or your own progress in life. We have to measure ourselves to our own standards. And that while we’re wasting time worrying about what other people are doing, they’re most likely doing exactly the same thing.
“We might also consider creating more meaningful relationships, which are based on shared rather than comparison,” advises Campbell. “Volunteering in community projects can be a great way to create new relationships, build self-esteem and cultivate a sense positivity that undermines Fomo.”
And, if all else fails, there are worse things than deleting Instagram.