Your neighbour cruises the driveway with a brand-new Tesla, the one you really want but know is a bit too expensive for your budget. A colleague who’s been at the company equally long as you, was promoted to a position you applied for – without him even asking for it. You want to be happy for them, but a feeling of inferiority, frustration, or resentment in some form sink in.
Envy is described as a toxic and hostile emotion of corrosive character, that sours ones’ view of life. In addition, social norms judge it as shameful. No wonder we try to find coping strategies: you may for example find yourself buying a car that’s over your budget, harm your relationships, or engage in self-damaging behaviours and thought-patterns.
We look outside for cues as to who we should be or what we should want. And then we blame ourselves because “everyone else has it together”. Instead, we should use envy to our advantage. How? By asking ourselves: what does success mean to me – and how could I live a life that looks like me?
Why asking yourself who you envy is important
Who are you more likely to envy: Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men, or your slightly richer next-door neighbour? 10 out of 11 pick the latter option. We tend to envy our so-called ‘relevant social circle’: people with similar backgrounds and qualities, but on some measures seem better off. Siblings, with shared DNA and upbringing typically form a particularly interesting reference group. Since the people we envy are often a part of our daily lives, the envy response may be triggered often. Thus, it’s important to assess the impact it has on our relationship with others and with ourselves.
While experiencing envy is painful, it doesn’t need to impact our actions. In fact, acting in the opposite spirit and showing in a concrete way that we are happy for someone else can improve our emotional state. Try what it feels like congratulating your colleague for their raise, or asking your neighbour to give you a ride around the block in their rocking new car.
How about your relationship to yourself? Envy caused by unflattering comparison can trigger negative self-evaluation. This seems like an unfortunate misuse of resources, since our usual tendency to respond to discouraging talk is demotivation. Instead of throwing yourself a pity-party, how about practicing self-compassion and focusing on your personal attributes. A strong and healthy identity comes from understanding that we are all valuable and similar in some ways, yet uniquely different in others, and learning to celebrate those differences.
What envy may reveal of your true desires
According to evolutionary psychology, envy is likely to represent your true desires better than a direct question. However, naming the object of your envy isn’t always simple. The reasons may not feel culturally acceptable (like greed or ego) or they may be hidden under the obvious. For example, someone being richer may have many underlying causes for envy: financial safety, admiration of others, access to better products and services etc.
Labeling the initial object can help you to orient steps towards that goal. On the other hand, you might also find, that the object of your envy isn’t something you see as worth pursuing, considering the price to be paid. Perhaps buying that new Tesla isn’t worth risking your financial safety, or sacrificing time spent with your family. Understanding the true object of our envy helps to put our values in order.
Using envy as a source of learning and motivation
Evolutionary psychology explains envy as a source of motivation, as it inspires us to gain equal or better access to resources. Let’s say you come to the conclusion that the object of your envy is something you truly want to pursue. Instead of getting trapped in your emotional state, try finding ways to learn and get inspired.
Is there something you can learn from the person you envy? What practical steps can you take in your personal situation towards your goal?
At the end of the day the question is: How do you want to live your life? That is the one you’re responsible for, and can influence.