There are many human emotions we’re told are unsavory. Seven of them have even been lumped together and deemed deadly: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
Not only does society cast these sentiments in a negative light, but they aren’t super fun to experience, either. Envy, in particular, is one feeling we don’t enjoy sitting with for long. It’s uncomfortable to feel covetous or less-than when someone in our circle has something we want, like a supportive group of friends or a rewarding career. When everyone we know — and many people we don’t — constantly broadcast their wins and extravagances online, envy can rear its head more frequently than we’d like.
Envy shouldn’t be confused with jealousy. “Envy is about things that are important for us,” says Yochi Cohen-Charash, a psychology professor at Baruch College, “and the target of envy will always be somebody who is comparable to us.”
The people we are truly envious of will often be of a similar age and the same gender as us, and never people far out of our social stratum, like a celebrity or socialite. The specific things we covet closely relate to our self-identity, which is why others’ successes and relationships can make us feel so lousy; we want them, too. Higher social standing — respect and admiration from others — as opposed to material items is among the most common objects of envy, a group of international researchers found in 2020. Jealousy, on the other hand, refers to the anxiety of losing your accomplishments, status, or partner to another person. Jealousy factors in the feelings of external parties; envy is internal.
Envy takes two forms, says Gerrod Parrott, a psychology professor at Georgetown University: malicious envy, and non-malicious or benign envy. Malicious envy involves hostility or resentment toward another person who has it better than us. “The motivation is to try to take away what they have or to undermine their success or happiness,” Parrott says.
Non-malicious envy focuses more on the objects of our desire — a large family, the financial ability to buy a home — and digging into how the other person achieved those goals. “The malicious, sinful kind is really directed at pulling the other person down to your level,” Parrott says. “Whereas [with] the more benign form, the motivation is more trying to improve yourself and do better to attain what the other person has already attained.”
Where jealousy can mean going on the offensive in the name of self-preservation, envy allows for introspection, an internal process that can help us zero in on goals and provide a road map for achieving them.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of using envy as a force for good is admitting we’re envious in the first place, Cohen-Charash says. For example, initially we might find it unfair when a sibling has attention bestowed on them for getting engaged when our accomplishments are seemingly overlooked. The root of this thought is, in fact, envy. Rather than admit we didn’t measure up in some way, it’s easier on our ego to paint the situation as an injustice. (The envy-inducing situation can definitely be unfair, too, Cohen-Charash notes.) Without acknowledging our envy, however, we’re unable to deal with it in productive ways and instead may stew in feelings of resentment or inferiority. “Admitting it to yourself, actually, grounds you in a more realistic perspective,” Parrott says. “Then, maybe move on to thinking of ways in which you can do better.”
Sometimes just recognizing envy can alert us to goals or milestones we never thought we wanted, Parrott says. The pang of envy felt when third-wheeling with a friend and their partner can be an indicator of our own desire for a romantic relationship; the sense of inferiority experienced after eating a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by our amateur chef cousin may be a sign we’d like to improve our own skills in the kitchen.
Owning up to envy needn’t be a shameful or even public endeavor. While expressing feelings of envy to a friend or therapist can be cathartic, people very rarely open up to the subject of their envy, Cohen-Charash says. In fact, this may not always be helpful. “I would ask, what do you expect or want to happen if you do?” says marriage and family therapist Emily Simonian. “Do I think that they’re going to say something that’s going to make me feel better? Am I looking for consolation? Or do I want their advice?”
More often than not, Simonian says to err on the side of privacy when faced with admitting envy to the source. Confiding in an outside person can provide an objective perspective and validation, helping anchor you to reality, Parrott says, either justifying the envy and helping us move forward constructively or taking the personal sting out of the emotion.
Let envy serve as a motivator
Instead of letting malicious envy fuel us and engaging in a bit of schadenfreude when those we’re envious of stumble, use covetousness as a goal-setting tool. To determine if our envy motivates us to act maliciously or benignly, Simonian says to try filling in the blank: “I’m envious and it makes me want to …” Cry? Tarnish someone’s reputation? Better yourself?
Unpleasant emotions, like anxiety and, yes, envy, are functional, Cohen-Charash says, alerting us to situations that need to change. Envy, for instance, warns us of “a situation in which we are [performing at] a lower level in things that are important for us,” Cohen-Charash says. It can also motivate people to better themselves and achieve success, studies show. If we’re envious of a coworker’s swift rise within the company ranks, this can be fuel to pursue our own professional success.
Look to those we’re envious of, Parrott says, as a road map or role model for how to achieve goals. “How did they get that? What are they doing that I’m not?” he says. “Then you can imitate or emulate that other person’s methods, techniques, ideas, moves, and what have you to, in fact, be better yourself in some way.” It can be helpful to write out a list of steps or benchmarks to make a lofty goal less intimidating, Simonian says.
However, no amount of hard work or manifestation can bless us with generational wealth, inherent talents, or a colossal salary overnight. The envy we possess over a rich friend’s nice new car provides few signposts for how to attain one ourselves if we struggle to make ends meet. To soften the blow, Cohen-Charash says it’s helpful to compare ourselves with the subject of our envy in areas where we excel over the other person. The person with the nice car might be terrible at driving and constantly get parking tickets.
“If you can remember that everybody has their story and everybody has their problems and challenges,” Cohen-Charash says, “and we can find a situation in which we are doing better than them, that can already help us feel less frustrated, less envious, because we immediately see that it’s not the whole picture.”
In the event that envy has turned malicious, there are ways to lessen the sting. Simonian says to consider that two seemingly opposing facts can both be true. We can be cognizant of our longing for a new job while also accepting the role we currently have.
Resentment occurs when envy persists without any action, Simonian says, so we need to dig deeper to root out causes of constant envy. She advises considering the question: “Are there things that I haven’t processed that are holding me back, or keeping me from being able to let these normal envious feelings kind of roll off my back?” We could be stewing in ongoing feelings of inadequacy based on past experiences. “Maybe I previously was fired from a job and that’s a sore spot for me,” she says. “So the promotion that I feel envious about really is hitting a pain point.”
Learning to simply appreciate the achievements of others can be reward enough, Parrott says — even if the others in question aren’t exactly your peers. “I’m never going to be an Olympic gymnast, and I can watch the Olympic gymnastics people and say, ‘Wow, that’s terrific and I’m glad it’s there in the world,’” Parrott says. “And I don’t feel like I immediately need to go start practicing on the pommel horse.”
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