Why is the grass always greener?

There was this different quality to the light even four days past the shortest day; the shift, the reversal, from increase of darkness to increase of light, revealed that a coming back of light was at the heart of midwinter equally as much as the waning of light” –– Ali Smith


Lately, I have found myself missing snow. Snow. That thing that shuts down Britain’s work days, roads and evening plans. That cold, wet and always harder-than-expected thing that I’ve always professed to find fun for five minutes before the novelty wears off.

You know, I’m probably missing it because I currently live in Sydney where it’s December right now and it’s twenty five degrees centigrade right now. I know because I just checked the Australian Bureau Of Meteorology app on my iPhone.

So why do we yearn for what we once had so readily and complained about because we no longer have it?

Because, as the old idiom goes, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Writing for Psychology Today, Jennifer Kunst PHD explains, “Troubles in life come when we believe the myth that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.  We are taken over by envy believing that other people have the good stuff.” That’s the snow in this case.

“The reason why this attitude undermines mental health is that it leads us to turn away from the main task of life which is to make the most of what we have,” Kunst continues. “By denying the goodness of our very own lives, we believe that we have nothing good to work with nor the capacity to work with it.  We lose focus, self-confidence, and hope.”

So instead of focusing on my current reality in which I can travel for twenty minutes and be on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, I find myself sitting here thinking about the crunch of snow under a pair of heavy boots.

One way our grass is always greener attitudes can be explained is by John Ninivaggi MD of Yale University’s Envy Theory and more specifically unconscious envy.  According to Psychology Today, unconscious envy is “the primitive sensation and conflated feeling of privation, powerlessness, inferiority, and hostile distress coupled with the urge to rob and spoil in the face of advantages and their enjoyment existing elsewhere.”

Accordingly, envy feels like it can be explained by evolution. When we see something we perceive as advantageous or desirable elsewhere, we ignore what is right in front of us to seek it – the other side of the fence, as it were – instead of seeing the advantage and desirability of what we already have. No doubt species that were able to act on this advantage-chasing instinct were able to go after what they need (food and water for survival) and so thrive and evolve.

When we see something we perceive as advantageous or desirable elsewhere, we ignore what is right in front of us to seek it.

“Healthy survival (the healthy maturation of envy) denotes both personal gain and gain for the other who is seen as biomentally similar, a relation of kin,” writes Ninivaggi. “Constructs, therefore, such as ‘inclusive fitness’ and ‘kin selection’ have psychodynamic relevance in envy theory.”

So there we are. We are designed to envy what others have, gaze longingly at the other side of the fence whilst ignoring our own beautiful lawns. Even if that does pose a challenge to modern minds on the scale of a full existential crisis from time to time. (Not to mention make us miss the snow we once bemoaned so readily).

–– Rosie Pentreath, December 2017.


Soundtrack to this post: ‘Strong’ by London Grammar



Rosie Pentreath

Founder and host of OUTcast Podcast. Rosie is an LGBTQ+ writer, digital producer and musician, often found travelling to some far flung place or other, to take photographs on a 1970s Pentax SLR camera or flick through a good book. Rosie has contributed to Reader's Digest, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, Classic FM, BBC Music Magazine, Homes & Antiques, Music Feeds, The Fashion Spot and other arts and lifestyle publications.

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