In a succinct, yet timeless piece of advice, the Holy Prophetsa of Islam said:
انْظُرُوْا إِلَى مَنْ هُوَ أَسْفَلَ مِنْكُمْ وَلَا تَنْظُرُوْا إِلَى مَنْ هُوَ فَوْقَكُمْ فَإِنَّهُ أَجْدَرُ أَنْ لَا تَزْدَرُوْا نِعْمَةَ اللّٰهِ
“Look at those who are lower than you, but do not look at those who are above you, lest you belittle the favours Allah conferred upon you.” (Sahih Muslim)
Here, looking at those “lower” and “above” refers to worldly riches such as wealth and status.
This life lesson resonates more than ever. Our postmodern society perpetuates materialism, encourages envy and focuses on wealth and status as the ultimate objects of life.
Generations are growing up in the influence of social media – platforms that, unfortunately, also encourage users to compare their lives to others, gravitate toward a hedonistic lifestyle and pursue, with more zeal, material goals.
Studies have shown that when materialistic goals continue to be central factors of someone’s life, levels of depression, well-being and even physical health are adversely affected.
As Kim Kasser, an American psychologist put it:
“Our first studies therefore showed that when young adults report that financial success is relatively central to their aspirations, low well-being, high distress, and difficulty adjusting to life are also evident. Although we cannot be sure from these results whether materialistic values cause unhappiness, or whether other factors are at work, the results do suggest a rather startling conclusion: the American dream has a dark side, and the pursuit of wealth and possessions might actually be undermining our well-being.” (The High Price of Materialism, p. 9)
“Adults who focused on money, image, and fame reported less selfactualization and vitality, and more depression than those less concerned with these values. What is more, they also reported significantly more experiences of physical symptoms. That is, people who believed it is important to strive for possessions, popularity, and good looks also reported more headaches, backaches, sore muscles, and sore throats than individuals less focused on such goals. This was really one of the first indicators, to us, of the pervasive negative correlates of materialistic values – not only is people’s psychological well-being worse when they focus on money, but so is their physical health.” (Ibid, p. 11)
Richard Eckersley, a fellow of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, Canberra, described the situation, saying:
“Modern Western culture undermines, even reverses, traditional (or universal) values. Individuals are encouraged to make themselves the centre of their moral universe, to assess everything from personal relationships to paying taxes in terms of ‘What’s in it for me?’ This promotes a preoccupation with personal expectations that keep rising and with wants that are never sated because new ones keep being created.
“As consumerism reaches increasingly beyond the acquisition of things to the enhancement of the person, the goal of marketing becomes not only to make people dissatisfied with what they have, but also with who they are. Once we have met our basic needs, most consumption today is located within the vices, little within the virtues – feeding off envy, to say nothing of greed, lust and other moral hazards. We cannot quarantine other aspects of life from the moral consequences of ever-increasing consumption.” (Well & Good: Morality, Meaning and Happiness, pp.50-51)
Individualism and materialism have immense negative effects on morality too. When we look at others – what they have and what we don’t – an evil side of the human condition manifests and modern society serves as a breeding ground for this condition: Envy.
The Holy Prophetsa particularly warned of not focusing on the riches and success of others, but rather reminded us to be thankful for what we already have by thinking of those who don’t have those blessings. If this advice is not acted on, the darker sides of humanity become unveiled.
Envy – or as the German term, schadenfreude, better describes it – leads to humans surpassing “jealousy” and entering a phase where they feel “pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.”
Richard Smith at the University of Kentucky said:
“Envy, when it is not in its benign form [akin to admiration], occurs when we lack another’s superior quality, achievement or possession, and either desire it or wish that the other lacked it […] When we envy, we feel inferior, longing, resentment, and ill-will toward the advantaged person.” (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-24/edition-2/deadly-sins)
Glaring at the success or material wealth of others, and not being grateful for what we have, brings with it envy, greed and jealousy. The Prophetsa said to be mindful and thankful for what we already possess as there are plenty who do not even have the luxuries we enjoy. It’s not without reason that the beginning of every Islamic prayer starts with, “All praise belongs to Allah.”
By being mindful and realising what kind of society has been formed, evaluating our own thoughts and then acting on the advice of the Prophetsa, we can curb the inner Satan.
Drowning in celebrity culture, blindly toiling for material wealth and comparing ourselves with the lives of others on social media only brings misery – mental, physical and spiritual. Not being thankful for what we have and also then being envious of others is detrimental.
In Surah Ibrahim, verse 8, Allah the Almighty says: “If you are grateful, I will, surely, bestow more favours on you; but if you are ungrateful, then know that My punishment is severe indeed”.
Commenting on this verse, the Promised Messiahas noted two elements: one must be grateful for what they have and also ensure they spread good and desire betterment for others. On the other hand, if someone is not grateful and acts immorally and cruelly towards others, then “God Almighty snatches their blessings and punishes them.” (Badr, Vol. 7, no. 16, 23 April 1908, p. 6)
In a society that serves as a fertiliser for materialism and worldly desires, as Muslims, it is essential that we take a step back, be mindful and act on the advice of the Prophetsa by looking at those who do not enjoy the wealth or comforts we do. Comparing our lives and gazing at the comfort, status or wealth of others will only take humanity down the dark street of depression, immortality and ungratefulness.