From a young age, we’re taught the dangers of envy when we hear the story of the evil Queen who so craved and envied Snow White’s beauty she put her to sleep.
But psychologists also speak of “benign envy,” which is motivating rivalry. It’s painful. After all, when a jockey presses spurs against a horse’s side, the horse runs faster because it hurts. Much research suggests that envy pushes us. Let’s say you have lunch with a former coworker who is bubbling with happiness over her new job. The evil Queen in you will go back to the office and roll your eyes and grimace when people ask how she’s doing. If you know how to make envy your friend, you could ruefully admit to your colleagues “She’s ecstatic!” and start brushing up your LinkedIn profile.
Unlike in English and Spanish, several languages make this distinction between good and bad envy. In Polish, you might feel “zazdrość” or “zawiść.” In Dutch, the two words are “benijden” and “afgunst.” The root of “afgunst” is to begrudge. When you begrudge another’s good fortune, you feel more than pain. You’re angry. Like the evil Queen, you want to bring your rival down, put her out of sight, remove the threat.
Although envy is normal and common, we often don’t realize when we’re envious. Instead, if we sense superiority, we focus on the other person’s shortcomings. Richard Smith, PhD, an expert on envy who teaches psychology at the University of Kentucky, recalls a psychotherapist who told him, “No patient has ever told me that they have a problem with envy, even though I see it in them. It’s basically saying, ‘I’m inferior, and I’m hostile.’”
Admiration is a pleasant feeling but less motivating, other research indicates. As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it, “admiration is happy self-surrender,” and “envy is unhappy self-assertion.” We can admire people complacently, announcing, “Oh, she’s awesome. I could never do that.” Usually, she’s doing something that was never on our list.
Envy is more painful among people who are close, especially siblings who have similar talents or ambitions. Let’s say you envy your sister’s high salary. Solomon Schimmel, PhD, a professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College in Boston, recommends that in your own mind — not in conversation — you might focus on your own advantages. See the bigger picture by considering your histories and choices. Maybe she has one child and you have three. You were once on a fast track in your career but scaled back to raise your kids. If your envy persists, reevaluate. Perhaps your brood is older, or your husband’s earnings have stalled. It’s time for you to bring in the big bucks.
All of these strategies help to keep your envy benign, though not painless. Should you retreat from a tie if you’re too envious? That’s a better move than tearing other people down. But the fact that you feel twinges of envy doesn’t mean you can’t open your heart. You can also sincerely celebrate the joys and successes of your rival. If you succumb to bad envy, the relationship will suffer or die. You suffer, too, because you lose your history together and the glow of your friend’s success. Successful people who are also happy tend to bring happiness to others.
What do you do when you can sense envy in your friend or sister? You might crow less, and in your time together shift attention to areas where you don’t compete or she’s your superior.
With your closest friends, you might confess. I once told a writer friend that I was envious when she sold her novel; years later, she introduced me to her literary agent.
Online, envy is fed by ignorance. As we all know — but forget — that distant acquaintance posting on Facebook the photos of Sally winning umpteen awards at track meets isn’t likely to mention that Sally totaled the car last year. If Facebook envy is eating at you, delete your profile or cut back on your Facebook time and substitute another way of socializing, writes Gregory Jantz, author of “Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology and Social Networking.” You may feel better — or you may not, if you’re falling short of your own expectations in life. Notice where your envy crops up again, and what choices make you feel best. “Being unplugged gives you an opportunity to observe these thoughts and feelings,” he says.
August 20, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN