The Upside of Envy

Depending upon how we use it, envy can either feed dissatisfaction or help us aspire to bring the goodness we desire into our own lives.

Illustrations by Asia Pietrzyk

As long as we are the apple of everyone’s eye and have all our needs and desires satisfied, as long as there is nothing at all that we want that we don’t have or can’t have now, life is a wonderful dream. But the instant that we want what YOU have, the seeds of envy are planted.

For instance, your body. It’s really, really nice. I bet it would look great on me. The more I think about it, seeing you in that body makes me feel fat (how dare you, by the way?), and I can’t help secretly hoping that under that shirt are some major arm waddles. But, be well.

Envy, the passionate longing for something that someone else possesses—an attribute, a quality, or even a thing—is rooted in a sense of inferiority. The Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier concluded that envy comes from people’s ignorance, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.

And despite how it seems, envy’s gaze rests less on the thing desired and more on the distress I feel that you have it and I don’t. Or as Aristotle wrote, “Envy is pain at the good fortune of others.”

Sometimes envy is fairly benign. We may wish that we had the technological savvy of a 10-year-old computer whiz, but we probably do not begrudge our nephew for his superior bits and bytes or his nimble fingers.

Some envy may be more corrosive. The Queen envied Snow White her beauty and this led to attempted murder, mayhem, and ultimately the Queen’s demise. Richard Nixon’s envy of power caused him to set Watergate in motion, which led to his resignation. And so on.

One of the more beguiling things about envy is that it is difficult to notice. Part of this is the nature of denial: We don’t like feeling or having less than. It makes us uncomfortable. And unlike jealousy, which is a heated reaction to a (real or perceived) threat to something you believe is rightfully yours (It was mine, and now YOU have the Precious, and this enrages me), envy doesn’t incite anger quite so obviously. Simmering resentment, maybe. But crimes of passion? Not so much.

Still, letting envy go unobserved can cause it to run rampant in ways that make experiencing happiness difficult. Listening to envy’s shadowy whispers can make us feel squashed, bitter, living our lives imprisoned by our own beliefs that we are somehow less than others because we don’t possess what they possess. Wanting what we don’t have but what we think others do is a sure-fire way to misery. And if envy focuses on what is unattainable, such as youth, owning the crown jewels, or having different DNA than what you were born with, then there is no way for the envier to win, which can leave us feeling even smaller.

The Roots of Envy

Like so many of our primal urges, there was a time when envy served a purpose in helping to keep us alive. Way back when, if we missed out on something everyone else in the tribe had or knew, we might find ourselves waking up in the cave alone, and looking delicious. Deeply embedded into our grey matter are brain networks, habits, and schemes that prevent us from becoming toothpicks for lunching lions.

Envy is no longer specifically geared toward our survival but when we imagine ourselves getting the short end of the stick, survival instincts can still kick in.

Modern ideas like FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, bathe in the waters of envy. Not receiving an invitation to meet the visiting company bigwigs, for example, could lead you to believe that you’re being passed over for a promotion. Missing out on your friends’ party can heighten your anxiety that others are having more fun than you.

But one of the challenges with envious thoughts is that they aren’t always rational. I have a friend who casually remarked feeling envious of a couple in her building who traveled whenever they wanted. “But you hate traveling!” I said. “So you envy what you don’t really want?” How intriguing. It made me wonder what my friend was really longing for: An idea of freedom or of seeing new things? (Though she never seems happier than when she’s home.)

Sometimes, we long for an elusive thing that may not even exist. It’s like Cary Grant once said: “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

No matter the extent or object of our envy, a particularly ornery thing about it is that even when you get the toys, the promotion, or the well-toned physique, you can still feel envious. There are no limits to wanting what we don’t have, especially if we believe that it will make us happier.

If we could notice the ways we begrudge others’ success, we might then be able to pause and ask ourselves: Is this really who I want to be?

Even worse, the brain’s habit of trying to rid itself of the discomforts of envy through rumination about how unfair it all is and how resentful we are, only etches the negative thoughts even more deeply into our psyche.

In fact, when we leave envy unattended, it nurtures our sense of inferiority. You may not like that your neighbor can afford to send their kid to private school, but does spreading rumors about them really give you a better opinion of yourself? More telling: Our brain actually registers envy as pain. In one study, participants were asked to think about envy-inducing situations, such as meeting a school peer a year after graduation, with the awareness that this person had now surpassed them in job quality, income, freedom, and attractiveness. Ouch. The participants’ fMRIs showed the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex lighting up a pain response that the researchers called “the distress of social exclusion.”

The study also made the point that the pain of envy is all about “me” versus “you.” And in a way, it makes sense. Humans are social creatures, so a significant amount of our self-worth comes from comparing ourselves to others in our peer group: Are we better off or worse off than “them?”

However, once these envying comparisons start to churn, they are often accompanied by an offshoot known as schadenfreude, the pleasure derived by another’s misfortune. This is the shadow we lurk behind when envy turns our minds to wanting bad things to come your way—sometimes just because you experience happiness.

If we could notice the ways we begrudge others’ success, we might then be able to pause and ask ourselves: Is this really who I want to be?

Graphic: The first signs of envy

But, There’s An Upside

In its grossest form, envy can drive us to unhappiness, dissatisfaction, self-loathing, and feeling just plain mean. In a more enlightened viewing, however, envy can be an important key to awareness because it illuminates our deepest longings. Sure, it could be our longing for a hybrid car, our neighbor’s tidy backyard or a winning lottery ticket, but when we look underneath these transient hungers we might notice the roots of our greatest aspirations. Maybe we think an eco-friendly car will make us seem more hip, but if we could recognize that “envy is here,” we might be curious enough to be in touch with a yearning for a new sense of identity, a desire to trade in the old, practical you for an upgrade to something that shows your participation as a proud member of planet Earth—now that’s cool!

Maybe it’s even a case where envy inspires action: not merely our desire to finally clean up the brush pile in the backyard, but letting it help nudge us toward our higher selves.

Is there any reason why we can’t use envy to help us discover and act upon our own path to joy and purpose?

illustration of porcupineMindfulness makes the claim that we can use anything to help us see more clearly. Your envy over a colleague’s rise in the company might wake you up to how you’ve been simply gliding in your job, and inspire you to go back and brave school to finally finish your master’s degree, or even to look for another career.

Of course, getting to this awareness requires tolerating the potentially unpleasant experience of feeling envious. But when we look deeper at envy we may see that underneath is the longing for what might be an unfulfilled need. Our tendency might be to think we want what you have, but under our feelings of lack might be the awareness that our envy has drawn us a map to the rich possibilities of the human experience.

The important point is allowing envy to