Is envy eating us alive?

By Dr Mary Grogan

Is envy eating us alive?
It’s an uncomfortable emotion that often engenders feelings of shame – but not all green-eyed monsters are created alike. Our resident psychologist explores different ways of feeling envy and why the emotion may be more useful than we think.

Have you ever been in the situation of seeing someone you perceive as an equal succeed beyond their – and your – wildest dreams? Have you ever struggled to understand how they did it, given that they are, according to you, no more talented or skilled than you? If the answer to these questions is yes, you have likely struggled with the painful feeling of envy.

You want what they’ve got. It could be a newly renovated house, a seaside bach, a promotion, new-found recognition and status, a girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, partner, a baby – the list is endless. As well as wanting their success or possession and focusing on your lack of it, feelings of inferiority tend to show up. Envy is the comparison emotion – and no prizes for guessing that you’re the one who comes off worst.

Envy doesn’t have a great reputation – it’s even one of the seven deadly sins. So when we feel envious, these feelings are generally kept under wraps. Most of us don’t admit to it as we think it’s unattractive or that we shouldn’t be having this feeling – we tend to feel ashamed of feeling envious. Few of us want to be thought of as someone who cuts others down – even though in New Zealand and Australia there are often complaints of tall poppy syndrome (the targeting of highly skilled or successful individuals because of their wealth or status).

Envy can bring out the worst in people. There are two main types described in psychological literature: benign envy, which leads to motivation aimed at improving one’s own position, encapsulated in the thought “it could have been me”; and malicious envy, which leads to a destructive motivation aimed at hurting the position of the superior other, captured by the thought “it should have been me”.

We tend to classify emotions as good or bad, but demonising envy because it is uncomfortable risks missing its function. Like any other emotion, it has a job to do: to prompt you to question whether there is something missing in your life that matters and whether there are improvements you could make.

Envy is often confused with closely related emotions – jealousy on the negative side or admiration on the positive side. Here’s the difference.

Envy vs jealousy

More than 20 years ago, psychologists found some distinct differences between envy and jealousy. Envy occurs when we lack something that someone else has. Jealousy occurs when something we possess (usually a relationship) is threatened by a third person. Richard Smith, a professor at the University of Kentucky, explains this in a post for Psychology Today: “Envy is a two-person situation, whereas jealousy is a three-person situation. Envy is a reaction to lacking something. Jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something (usually someone).”

So far, so simple, right? Not quite. Often you will feel both emotions: if you see your partner captivated by another, you might envy that person’s ability to engage your partner’s full attention, especially if it has been some time since your partner paid that sort of attention to you, but you’ll probably also feel jealous, fearing you might lose them. The blend of jealousy and envy can be extremely uncomfortable. Most of us would rather admire than envy – but why? Admiration is considered a positive emotion relating to another’s “deserved” high status. If we feel their success is deserved, we are likely to feel good about their accomplishments.

Admiration is a funny emotion, though, in that it doesn’t typically leave people motivated to do better in their lives. When researchers from the Netherlands looked at the effects of envy versus admiration, they found that benign envy can have a motivating force behind it when people thought they could improve themselves. But when participants thought self-improvement was unattainable, it led to more admiration and no motivation to do better.

Why is it we admire some and envy others? The research says admiration feels better than envy and doesn’t prompt inferiority, but the frustration envy evokes while feeling negative spurs us onward. So if you want to feel happier, admiration is the emotion for you. But if you want to be motivated, benign envy will get you there – but it may well be painful.

Social comparison

Think of the last time you trawled a social networking site such as Facebook or LinkedIn. Can you remember what you felt the majority of the time you were on these sites?

Recent research conducted by two German universities tells us one in three people feel misery and loneliness as a result of using Facebook. In the words of the study’s authors: “Facebook produces a basis for social comparison and envy on an unprecedented scale.” From their study of more than 500 participants, the researchers found that people were most envious of others’ happiness, their holiday photos and their social interaction – where else can you see just how many people wished them well on their last birthday? Or how many “friends” someone has?

It was also found that if people have a purpose in engaging with Facebook (for example, actively messaging people rather than passively browsing their content) they felt happier. Additionally, the more time people spent passively browsing, the more negative they felt.

Upward social comparison is the term psychologists use to describe the “compare and contrast” technique our minds use when comparing our lives with others’. Rest assured, it is completely
normal to do this. There is a good reason for us to constantly compare ourselves to others: we are social beings who thrive in connected relationships. If you have any doubt about this, check out Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence (2006) or Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew Lieberman (2013).

Essentially, these books provide evidence that we are constantly reading other people so we can fit in with them. The ability to fit in, be part of a group and not do things that will cause us to be rejected is hardwired into us. It is clear our brains are designed to respond to, and be influenced by, others. Envy can be a useful messenger in this regard. When we feel envy, we might ask ourselves what’s missing in our lives. How might we remedy that? Is there anything we can learn from the person we envy? On the positive side, through seeing others succeed, we can push ourselves to greater heights.

Ways to control the green-eyed monster

Resist buying into the comparisons your mind makes.

Do some critical analysis.

Don’t imagine that a skill in one area of life automatically confers competency in other areas of life. Look for everyday examples of this, such as the obese doctor, the workaholic CEO, or any number of celebrities whose original magic was tainted when we found out more about their human side (think, Tiger Woods or Oscar Pistorius).

Live by your own values and not the rules determined by others.

While we might not like envy, it is a normal, natural human emotion. Like every other emotion, it has a job to do. The key is not to let it distract you from being the person you want to be and living the best life you can, focusing on what matters to you.


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