I had some happy news the other day, a publishing deal for a book I’ve been writing. I hung up the phone glowing. I was busting to tell someone. Only who? Aside from a handful of exceptions, I realised with a slump that my Rolodex of friends I feel comfortable sharing triumph with is diminishing. Who might care? Worse, who might genuinely not?
Had it been bad news – no publishing deal, say, or a full blown drama or just feeling low or left out – my cup runneth over. There are any number of people I can download to who would be only too willing to hear me out. I know. I have done it. Too often. I am forever grateful for those who have hauled me through down times, generous souls who keep the faith (when I can’t), a cheer squad for my potential and deservedness. But when the tide turns – for the better – it becomes evident who were really just purveyors of schadenfreude, deriving pleasure from nothing exceptional happening, going all weird and dismissive when it does.
I sat across from a former colleague in a cafe once, sobbing her heart out because her sister was getting married. “Why aren’t you happy for her?” I asked, genuinely perplexed. “Because why isn’t it happening for me?” she cried. As if there is a finite well of happiness, one sister’s wedding sapping the potential of the other. This is the same woman who I congratulated for every one of her milestones over two decades: new jobs, wedding (yes, it happened) and babies. Yet when I gushed to her about an exciting job offer of my own, she sat in silence.
Yet for another friend it went like this: years of longing for a baby and when her friend gets pregnant I ask her if it’s hard for her and she responds, with surprise, “No, why? Should it be? Are there people who aren’t happy for others when they get what they want?”
Well, yes. Yes there are. “I lost a few friends when I got married”, says a friend who found love in her 40s. “I tried to keep up but really I felt they were envious of my happiness”. Another fell out with a close friend over her decision to go traveling. “She said she was so jealous that she found it hard to be around me and share any part of the journey with me.”
“Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend”, said Oscar Wilde, “but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.”
As my friend, recently divorced, found out when she was inundated with support as she endured the pain and fallout but now that she’s in love again, “those friends don’t want a bar of me.” When another launched a successful website she received a call from an acquaintance to pass on the bitchy comments people were making about it. “I just thought you should know”, said the woman. Schadenfreude, once removed.
I’m not saying I’m immune. I used to need a minute when I would hear about the dream jobs of peers. Now it doesn’t bother me one bit, delighted to witness someone come into their own, knowing that their time has come. It’s other stuff that trips me up these days, I’m ashamed to admit: perfect homes, holidays and happiness. It takes effort to eradicate envy, a conscious reminder that there is enough to go around. One person’s contentment in no way affects the supply. Quite the opposite, according to psychologists, who cite the ‘unjealous friend’ as one of the top traits of ‘what happy people do differently’. “By sharing and focusing on the positive experiences of others we deepen the quality of our relationships which enhances the depth of our health and happiness”, explains Clinical & Coaching Psychologist Dr. Tim Sharp.
The same goes for romantic relationships. In healthy ones they’re there for each other when the going gets tough, but research shows it’s even more important they’re there when the going gets good. A University of California research paper – titled Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? – found one of the keys to couples staying together is how they respond to positive news. “Shared joy”, they call it, or good old fashioned kindness. Couples are more likely to last the distance if happy news is met with an ‘active constructive’ response, a ‘turning toward’ your partner with enthusiasm and interest. The alternative – to diss it, actively or passively – is the death knell.
Blessedly, at home my joy was shared, and writing time generously allocated. But the art is to work out who to tell. These occasions for jubilation happen so rarely in our lives that I didn’t want to risk having my bubble burst by disinterested or, possibly, resentful recipients so I selected carefully. I told the people I knew would buoy me and be proud of me and allow me this moment before the hard work begins.
The greater growth will come when I don’t need them either. When I can fly with or without recognition, motivated solely by the potential for betterment and making the most of this life. As long as we crave acclaim, unreliable and fickle as it is, we will be let down. Still, that won’t stop me dishing it out, knowing what a difference it makes.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au 13th July 2014