On a nice summer evening after dinner recently, our two-year-old was in our backyard working a blue hula-hoop with a level of skill far beyond her years.  Her face was the very definition of joy. 

But then it all took a very sudden turn for the worse.

Her five-year-old brother had gone into the garage and emerged with a red hula-hoop.  Just walking past her with it in his hand was enough to twist her happiness into frustration.  “I want the red one!” she yelled, her blue hula-hoop lying lifeless on the ground.

It didn’t matter that the red one had a kink in it, whereas the blue one was perfectly round.  The red one looked better to her, especially in the hand of her brother, and she wanted it.

She yelled again: “I want the red one!”  And then she cried.

The Envy Instinct

I’m no child psychologist, but envy doesn’t seem to be a learned behavior.  It seems to come very naturally.  And it doesn’t seem to be something we outgrow.

I’ve coveted what others have plenty of times in my life.  Homes, cars, vacations, and golf swings are just a few of the things I can recall someone having a better version of that I wanted.

I’ve had plenty of blue ones when I wanted red ones.

How about you?

It’s embarrassingly easy to get caught up in the comparison game. Researchers call it social comparison. You and I know it as keeping up with the Joneses. Today we may be satisfied with our five-year-oldToyota. But tomorrow, when our neighbors show up in their new Lexus, with its leather seats and concert quality stereo system, the old Toyota just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, points out that we may not even beaware of the comparisons we make with other people. “It may be as simple as the fact that exposure to their latest ‘lifestyle upgrade’ plants the seed in our own mind that we must have it, too—whether it be a European vacation, this year’s fashion statement, or piano lessons for the children.”

Thanking Envy Away

Here’s what I’ve discovered about envy.  We can’t will it away, guilt it away, or ignore it away.  But there is one thing that seems to help, and that’s gratitude.

I don’t know when or how I developed this habit, but I begin most mealtime and bedtime prayers by giving thanks for the day followed by a simple statement: “Every day is a gift.”

If I’m really honest about it, I say the words so often that there are times when they come from habit much more so than from my heart.

But those words have become a helpful, often-needed reminder to myself that no matter how bad things get there is much to be thankful for.

Regular Weeding Required

Recently I found myself lying in bed wide awake feeling irritated.  A couple of clients were way overdue on several sizeable invoices, and I had gotten a call that morning from another client saying his organization was having financial problems.  Great.  Another one for the overdue-and-might-never-pay pile.  Last year a seemingly successful company had hired me for some video work only to go bankrupt, leaving me unpaid and having to eat all the travel expenses for which I was supposed to be reimbursed.

I used up way too many minutes envying those who get a steady paycheck.

That day I had also driven to an appointment in our van, along the way seeing several vehicles I’d much rather have been driving.

It had been a day of owning blue ones while wanting red ones.

But in the quiet of the night I got up and looked in on our three sleeping kids, and I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude.  I love my family and the work I get to do.  And yes, I even appreciate our van. It’s amazingly reliable, hasn’t needed any major repairs, and it’s big enough for our family of five – attributes that work really well for this stage of life.

As I took inventory of the many things I’m grateful for, the irritations of the day started to fade away.  Without even thinking about it, I found myself saying a silent prayer and meaning every word: Dear God, thank you for today.  Every day is a gift. 

How do you deal with envy? 

Matt Bell is the author of three personal finance books published by NavPress, including the brand new "Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples."  He teaches a wide variety of workshops, including MoneySmart Marriage, at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work and subscribe to his blog, go to: www.mattaboutmoney.com.