On being ... green eyed

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ll admit right off the top, today’s column isn’t really about eye colour. My inspiration for the column was a story in the Toronto Star last week. Its headline read: Taming the green-eyed monster, a matter of maturity, study finds. I wasn’t familiar with the expression, “green-eyed monster” so my curiosity was piqued.

Well, as you may have guessed, the story was about envy. (I was familiar with the expression “green with envy”, but I have no idea where it comes from. Maybe it’s from some green-eyed monster of myth or fairy tale.) Anyway, the article reported on a study into how the experience of envying differs with age and gender.

I know what you’re thinking: it sounds like some lightweight “research” sponsored by some internet dating site or something. It wasn’t. The research, which was published in the November issue of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, was conducted by Prof. Christine Harris and graduate student Nicole Henniger of the University of California at San Diego. Their conclusions were based on survey responses of 925 participants from 18 to 80 years old.

In the article, Harris talked about envy as a “social emotion”. She pointed out that, as one of the seven deadly sins, envy’s been seen as motivating everything from evil stepmothers in folk stories to Occupy Wall Street protesters. I never thought of envy in those terms, did you?

For the study, participants were asked to recall a time in the last year when they envied some they knew personally. Those who did were then asked a series of questions designed to find out the nature of the envy and the gender and age of the person they remember feeling envy about. The categories of envy participants were asked to consider were: scholastic success, social success (which the reporter interpreted as status), looks, romantic success (hmmm… not sure what that means), monetary success, and occupational achievement.

Turns out, envy of other people’s education, looks, romance, and status all diminish with age. In fact, of those four areas, the only one that still even registers for those over 30 is romantic success. And, by the half century mark (those 50 and over), envy over romance is pretty much gone. Harris’ theory is that as we get older we become less concerned with things like our appearance and we come to accept our social status.

Envy of monetary success, however, moderately increases with age. Envy of occupational achievements, on the other hand, apparently peaks in your 40s, and then declines in your 50s. The authors mention that one reason occupational envy may decline is because people in their 50s may be looking ahead to retirement.

In thinking about the study, I was struck by the fact that the findings certainly seem to reflect my life. Though I honestly don’t recall feeling envious in each of those areas, I’m sure at different points in my life I felt each of those to some degree. But the really good news is that from the vantage point of my mid-50s, I’m happy to say that like the bulk of the survey participants, the green-eyed monster doesn’t have much of a hold on me.

Mind you, I have my own theories about why envy subsides as we age. The way I see it, in our youth we’re on pretty much the same path as our peers, all trying to achieve similar things. So, comparisons are inevitable and if you perceive someone is ahead of you or has some advantage over you, envy might bubble up.

But, as we get older, our focus widens and we realize that a fulfilling life involves making the most of our own qualities and experiences. We also come to appreciate just what we have. And, we come to realize that even if someone has things we don’t, they also have their share of trials, tribulations, and heartache.

So, by now I’m sure you see what I mean – this column isn’t about eye colour at all. But you know, it’s not really even about envy. It’s about one of the really cool things about growing old…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


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