Beginning with Cain and Abel, history has known famous and less famous stories woven around the devastating experience of envy.
“Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed,” English philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote. In other words, even the strongest people develop inferiority complexes, feeling overwhelmed by others’ or their own expectations.
On the list of cardinal sins, envy passes as the sadness caused by another person’s “luck”. The very use of the two terms in a relation of opposition reveals its deficient character. The word comes from Latin, and is an extension of the expression in videre, “to look at”. It turns out that this slippery emotion always relates to what we see outside of us, whether we are talking about material things that someone else possesses, or whether we are referring to relationships, professional accomplishments, or physical or character traits.
Envy is the elephant in the room we talk very little about. We deny it on a declarative level, but we cannot deny its presence in the everyday landscape: everyone wants the best for themselves, and the success of others makes us look reluctantly at their situation when we have not enjoyed similar benefits.
Envy vs jealousy
Although it is often confused with the feeling of jealousy, or spite—as it is called in popular language—envy does not derive from the fear of losing something or someone in favour of another person and does not manifest itself mainly in a context of love. Instead, it occurs when three conditions are met simultaneously: 1) measuring ourselves against a person 2) who is superior to us from a certain point of view, 3) giving us a feeling of deep regret or even major stress.
Not every type of superiority arouses the selfish feeling of regret. Studies show that we tend to envy people who are similar to us in terms of age, life experience, social environment, and field of activity. As Bertrand Russell says, “Beggars do not envy millionaires, just other beggars who are more successful”.
The need to acquire foreign things or experiences is related to future events to a greater extent than to past ones. According to a study conducted on 620 participants, we are inclined to covet other people’s current well-being more than their past well-being, regardless of the form it takes (a raise, a holiday abroad, relational success).
Another study conducted on 18,000 subjects, in 2005, 2009, and 2013, claims that society itself stimulates envy, on a large scale. Consumerism, permanent exposure to “perfect” lives in the online environment, the advertising industry, the illusion of equal opportunities, all generate a favourable framework for comparison with others. School itself contributes to this great vicious circle. Early on, we learn to compete with our peers—to come in first, to stand out. The competition continues when we get older, becoming a reality at work, a constant in the circles we attend. Hence, the habit of permanent comparison with others.
The motivation to be better
Regarding the motivation it generates, specialists distinguish between two types of envy: benign and malignant envy. The first has a positive basis, which can turn the envied man into a model, cultivating the motivation to overcome themselves. The second reaches a paroxysm of hostility towards the object of envy and fuels deep feelings of hatred, displeasure, and contempt, annihilating any motivation to actually become better.
Writer Ayn Rand also distinguishes between malicious envy, springing from selfishness, and harmless envy, stemming from the desire to obtain the advantages others have, without harming or hating them. This desire can help us recognize another person’s worth, be inspired by it, and turn “spite” into admiration.
There are, however, situations in which individuals cannot or do not want to direct their resentments along a constructive, aspirational path. The same longitudinal study mentioned above indicates that few who long for the good of others feel motivated to outdo themselves or are able to achieve economic success in the future.
Joy sprung from selfishness
The most pessimistic scenario on this topic revolves around the idea of Schadenfreude. The term brings together two German words whose joining means “to enjoy the evil of another”. Among other things, the concept explains why the news about ruined celebrities is so popular. As unpleasant as it may sound, the fact that those who live a seemingly ideal life lose their money, notoriety or brilliance helps us to look at our own difficulties differently.
The pleasure caused by peer failures is more widespread among children, but adults are not immune to this malicious impulse either. While children readily acknowledge it, older people feel embarrassed to admit their reprehensible thoughts. Society condemns envy, in all its aspects, so that many of those who are targeted prefer to keep it hidden or convert it into variants which can easily be digested by their own conscience and by those around them.
Revolt, indignation, and offence are examples of socially accepted emotions under whose umbrella envy can hide. Thus, instead of envying our newly promoted colleague, we revolt, convincing ourselves that they were undeservedly promoted. We have, therefore, a natural, justified reaction to an unjust situation.
What is left behind
Regardless of its manifestation, envy has consequences that are difficult to repair. Permanent comparison with others, with their living standard, knowledge, and general satisfaction, creates overwhelming frustrations and hostile attitudes towards them.
Feelings of envy affect physical and emotional health, promote depression, insomnia, anxiety, failure to reach personal potential, and the loss of friends. These effects also impact others, through acts of self-sabotage that are often used by those blinded by the achievements of acquaintances, or even through aggression (whether physical or verbal).
Debating the problem of suffering caused by the contrast between one’s own shortcomings and the abundance of the world, Aristotle proposes an interesting theory. In his view, envy should not be repressed, but accepted as such, then transformed into emulation, and the endeavour to become like the envied.
The philosopher states that there is a subtle but critical difference between the two, a matter of nuances: envy arises because others have good things; emulation does not arise because others have good things, but because we don’t have them ourselves. The first condemns us to stagnation, the second leads to progress. The difference is self-esteem. Whoever thinks they deserve to prosper will make a sustained effort in this regard, being interested in themselves, not others.
How can we focus more on ourselves and less on others? Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to envy management:
The law of probability says that, in life, we cannot have it all. Even if others apparently live their existence to the superlative degree, the actual reality of their lives can surprise us. We know only one part of the story, one side of the coin.
The perspective we adopt starts from the following question: Do we want to drag others down? Or do we want to lift ourselves up? Are we trying to sabotage those we might otherwise applaud and admire? Or do we intend to invest in ourselves? To answer these questions correctly, we must know that equality in lack or suffering is no greater virtue than equality in well-being.
There are some important notions to understand to combat the eroding effects of envy:
The certainty that other people’s success does not rob us of our own personal success
Apart from exceptional situations, successful people’s successes are not based on the failures of the ones lagging behind them, but can be solid benchmarks for the efforts of the latter to overcome.
The power of personal example
No matter how difficult it may seem to us, we have the opportunity to learn from those in whose shoes we would like to walk through life. We should regard them as guides for good practices rather than rivals. This should be the motto we adopt in relation to our successful models.
Idealizing some life stories leads to self-pity, and self-pity is not a strong enough engine in the mechanism of positive change. Speaking about the complexes caused by the fame of a colleague, journalist Therese J. Borchard recounts, in an article from 2018, how she managed to stop complaining and gain a better perspective on the impossible standards she had set for her professional goals. The discovery that her unofficial rival also faced feelings of fear and insecurity made her realize that perseverance, rather than perfection, is a condition for success.
Among the many strategies worth applying in the fight against the most widespread negative emotion in the universe, there is an essential strategy based on a simple and valuable teaching. This sums up the actions we can take to avoid becoming victims and, at the same time, executioners ruled by envy, in the following special exhortation: “Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15).
Joy is the most effective alternative to feelings of regret that surround us when good things bypass us, but not those around us. Joy is what allows us to look at ourselves, our inner resources, and the opportunities that are easy to miss when we are too busy accounting for the blessings of others. The joy springing from empathy is the opposite of envy, and gives us the freedom we need to not feel inferior anymore.
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in social work counselling.