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Why growing old allows us to accept the hand fate has dealt us

By Mary Kenny

Published 30/11/2015

Ageing well: Imelda Staunton has matured into a compelling vitality
Ageing well: Imelda Staunton has matured into a compelling vitality

Do people become less envious as they grow older? They certainly should do. Many bad traits abate with age. A shrink once told me that serious pathologies, such as the urge to commit arson, begin to decline after the age of 35. A study published by the University of California, and co-authored by Professor Christine Harris, claims that envy is one of those failings that tends to decline with age.

People under 30 are much more likely to feel envious of others than those over 50, and presumably, as time goes by, envy almost trickles away. Hopefully.

And it stands to reason. When you're 18, you're desperately envious of those with better looks, more sex appeal, more boyfriends or girlfriends, and better prospects in life.

Once you're over the hill of the 50s, c'mon, most of that is behind you. The dice has rolled, the choices made, and you've had to make the best of the hand you were dealt by fate. Yes, there are still choices available, but they have less capacity to change the course of your life.

Also, there's an equalising element among peers with the passage of time. The girls you knew in their 20s, who you might have envied for their stunning beauty, have now, more or less, the same number of wrinkles as everyone else over 50. Even if they have had a bit of "work" done on their face, the neck and hands remain a giveaway.

And anyway, the beauty of 20 is not always the beauty at 50: the plain Jane of youth may mature into something quite beguiling.

There's a terrific actress called Imelda Staunton - English, but of Irish parentage - who was always given the character roles as a young woman: she was playing the hag of a nurse in Romeo and Juliet when she was a young 'un, because she was considered so far from being pretty. But she's now aged 59 and she looks great, maturing into a compelling vitality.

Envy abates because its inevitable companion is acceptance. What's the point of envying a friend their newly acquired Mercedes, or their second home in Tuscany, when such dreams have drifted entirely away from the realm of reality? And experience prompts the thought that a holiday home in Tuscany probably means more responsibility and the worry of finding an Italian plumber to mend the roof at an inconvenient moment.

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but they need to be insured, cleaned, protected and worried about. There comes a moment when you're glad that most of your sparklers are paste, and you feel no envy at all for those with real gems.

But even though it is numbered among the Seven Deadly Sins, envy has its benefits. A little envy can be a spur to ambition, and competition. The advertising industry, and thus the entire structure of consumerism, would hardly exist without exploiting envy. "Persil Washes Whiter" was based on the well-established belief that one housewife would envy another's better class of laundry.

And envy can be the father of wit. As with Gore Vidal's exquisite line on malicious envy: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

When people become parents, their sense of envy - and its related weakness, jealousy - may be transferred to their children, and then their grandchildren. We then grow envious on behalf of the next generation, carefully watching the competition of their peers, and irked when their mates seem to be getting ahead.

The maternal instinct, which can soften personal ambition may also sharpen ambition on behalf of offspring. Thus the phenomenon of the pushy mothers who have transferred all their personal competitive feelings to a child.

In Ireland, it used to be said that the son became a priest, but it was the mother who had the vocation. The same pattern has always existed in show business: we would never have heard of Elizabeth Taylor had she not had a pushy mother who had transferred her ambitions.

Yes, according to the Californian study, women are generally more envious than men. Perhaps that's why men have often bonded better with mates in football teams, armies, male groups: they are more generous in accepting the successes of their mates.

I'm surprised by how generously-minded many people seem to be, whereas I know that, secretly, I still harbour an element of begrudgery. When everyone praises someone in the public eye, I'm more inclined to look for the mean little faults, and a lot of this is based on the reptile part of the brain which includes envy.

And although I'm usually benignly disposed towards the young - even when they're blathering the same kind of half-baked nonsense that I once blathered myself - there is one area in which I still boil with envy towards younger generations: and that is in education.

These kids don't know how lucky they are. They're all enabled and encouraged to go to university, and then they grumble about tuition fees - do they think universities are run on hot air? Do they imagine that the lowly paid taxpayer should fund their BAs, MAs and PhDs, which are an investment in themselves? All this ire is fuelled by envy, and by a bitter resentment that when young, I didn't get the academic chances that I deserved. Pathetic.

But the dice have rolled, and the over-50s have had to make the best of the hand fate dealt: and accept that sometimes we failed to do so. And envy of others avails us naught.

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