I don’t know about you, but wow, my friends are having terrific lives.  Some days I scroll through their Facebook photos and newsfeeds and I’m in awe of all that evidence of fun—potlucks, parties, girls’ nights out. Laurie has 762 friends?  I don’t think I’ve met 762 people in my lifetime.

I often feel like a voyeur after an hour on Facebook. And it always ends the same way: just a quick little peek at my ex’s page. I always hope that, just once, there’ll be some sign of aging going on over there. Maybe a little stress?  Five or ten extra pounds?  No. I find 1,216 friends and a trip to Hawaii with a dip in a waterfall pool with the new (younger) wife. They are both absurdly fit, and—oh, lord—she’s planning to run a marathon for charity.

I think . . . I think I need a glass of wine.

All this connectivity seems so good in theory, but in reality, it’s a bit like a hearty binge on junk food: dozens of irresistibly tasty tidbits, and then you feel like hell.  Your stomach upset, you compare your life to that of people you may not have seen in 20 years. Oh sure, you’re aware that they’re posting only the best photos—and Photoshopping them first, of course—because you’re doing the same thing.  But for some reason, it’s not enough to know that.  Because, after all, they aren’t faking the trip to Hawaii and the waterfall, right?  And those 1,000+ friends—they can’t be faking that.

I could make the case that all this evident success is just surface material and that a fathom deep lies information we will never know.  Besides understanding the sad reality lurking behind a few too many seeming fairy tales—Princess Diana, anyone?-–it’s possible that every one of us has been on the happy side of the envy equation.

I’ve been there. People posted comments under a photo of me in which I looked “so happy” and “glowing”—which is, of course, why I posted the picture. But I also know the reality of that moment.  In a beautiful coastal setting with a married couple who were just past a rough patch, all I could think was that I, too, wanted to have someone with whom to come through rough patches.  I was never so lonely as on that fine beach when that photo was snapped.  I smiled in the picture, but I cried, sorry for myself, all the way home.

So we already know firsthand about green grasses over fences and books judged by covers. It doesn’t matter. Envy still turns our rosy cheeks green. With envy, the thing we want is someone else’s.  It’s a party we aren’t invited to.

But think about it—I bet we don’t want all of it, no matter what “it” is.  The successful mate?  A workaholic whose focus is on career.  The mate with the perfect body?  Always at the gym or off triathlon-training.  Single people can be lonely, but then again, married people have got to compromise. Those lucky ducks who come into sudden wealth have few genuine friends—or if they do, an unease lurks about how real the friendship is. Famous people who have perhaps worked their entire lives to gain attention from the world now find themselves in a world that seeks to be noticed by them. Be the enviable wife of a famous person and you share every restaurant meal with a waitress looking for a break (“Pull up a chair, why don’t you?”). Or your sweet children are mere conduits to an invitation to your house.  Which will be photographed with the cell phone. And on it goes.

Okay, so let’s say we’ve got it memorized:  Facebook profiles are never the whole story, and even the lovely parts that are true will have some sort of downside.  But now let’s imagine that rare case: our old friend from high school who does have a great career, a truly perfect husband, truly perfect children, just the right amount of money, beauty, brains, and style, and no need to Photoshop either her pictures or her life. Worst of all, she is a lovely person through and through and we want to love her.  She’s that adorable, slim, clear-skinned Kate Middleton, and she actually has hit the Happiness Jackpot.  We want to be friends and feel happy for her.  We do not want to feel diminished in her presence or to see our lives pale after lunching with her. What then?

We go home.  Not to our literal home, but rather home within ourselves. If our minds are inhabiting someone else’s life, then there is nobody home in our own.  In a book my sister gave me called How to Be Happy All the Time, the author, Paramhansa Yogananda, declares, “Mental restlessness results from an outward focus of awareness . . . .The more widely we scatter our energies, the less power we have left to direct toward any specific undertaking.” When we’re immersed in our own goals, I believe, we can be happy that others are immersed in theirs.

In fact, we can even make use of envy when it strikes, especially if our own goals are undefined.  If you see something—a rich social life, for instance—and you long until you hurt, put that on your list and work toward it.  I know, for instance, that I can see someone with the finest of Ferraris or the biggest of diamonds, but I feel not even a twinge, because it’s nothing I want.  But if I see a creatively rich life, or a relationship that survives its hurdles and endures with greater depth, I wince. And then I go write at a café, with makeup on and an open seat at my table.

So often we are prone to compare lives or situations and rank them as better or worse than our own.  But what if they are just different? Not better or worse than your friend’s or your ex’s, just different. Every path has its value.

Some things we will never have, but acceptance can get us past despair. I looked out of my house once, about two years ago, and saw the couple across the street with their two small children arrive home from an Easter Sunday brunch with both sets of grandparents. A few more family members arrived—everyone seemed to be in such lovely pastels—and I felt deflated, watching them.  But I caught myself, for a change, and said, “Well, I guess that’s just not me.”  And it was okay after that. I picked up the laundry basket and cleaned house with jazz on the stereo.

Image: “Woman with Blog, after Pablo Picasso,” by Mike Licht via Flickr.

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