Envy is not a rare feeling, but it’s a rarely acknowledged one. No one likes to admit they’re envious. Instead, they’ll call it some other feeling: anger, injustice, resentment, sadness, hurt, puzzled, lonely, bored, or jealous, among others. But, if you have ever been unhappy that someone had something you don’t, you were envious; admit it.
Anger and injustice are mistaken for envy when you say it’s not right others have something you don’t have. When you nurture that anger, you mistake it for resentment. You’ll call it sadness if you feel down about it; hurt, if it pains you; and puzzled if you don’t understand why. You’ll say you’re lonely or bored when you wish you had someone or something to do. At the core of all these feelings is envy. If you want to understand these feelings, you must call it for what it is: envy.
Jealousy is different from envy, although the two words are often used synonymously. When you possess something and are concerned with losing it to a rival, that’s jealousy. Envy is when you don’t possess something and don’t want anyone else to have it, either. You’re jealous when your girlfriend wants another man; if you want another man’s girlfriend, that’s envy.
Envy is also different from admiration or a desire to emulate. With envy, you want to punish the person who has what you want. With emulation, you don’t begrudge success, you are inspired by it.
We see envy in the man compelled to keep up with the Joneses and the woman who can’t be happy that her friend is pregnant because she wants to be. It drives a large part of our economy; it energizes politics; it wrecks far too many friendships. It’s envy’s fault when you can’t look at updates on Facebook without feeling bad about yourself or enjoy vacation photos on Instagram without wishing you were there. It’s the reason, no matter how well you do, you can’t be happy if you aren’t doing better than everyone else.
Envy alerts you to the presence of inequity. It tells you when things aren’t fair, when your ideas about justice are violated. You feel envy because you believe you should have an equal right to anything you want because you’re just as good and deserving as the next guy. Envy appears to promote egalitarianism. Unfortunately, you only feel envy when you are on the bottom, looking up. When you’re at the top, and actually have power to correct inequities, envy is nowhere to be found.
You could argue that envy serves a useful purpose in motivating you to succeed. To see if that’s true, examine your reaction after you’ve completed a video game. How do you feel looking at the leaderboard? Interest, awe, and admiration? Or do you hate the names listed there? Can you review your performance and see how you could have done better? Or, are you more focused on how the game was rigged? Could you sincerely shake the champion’s hand, or do you want to maim him so he can’t play anymore?
Envy is a potent cause of unhappiness. Of the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath, it’s the only one that’s no fun at all. Not only are you made unhappy by your envy, but you wish to inflict misfortune on others. If you are not going to feel good, no one else can, either.
I really began to know envy after I published my first book. I must be careful every time I get a royalty check, not to compare it with the checks I imagine others get. If I let myself linger in those thoughts, I’d resent others’ success and forget my own. I’d start to rail against all the advantages they had. I’d mistake their failure for my success. If someone asks me for writing advice, I’d be suspicious and competitive. I’d write nasty reviews. I’d never be able to give deserved praise. That’s why I never look at best-seller rankings. It would be like putting my head in a hungry lion’s mouth. I would be devoured by envy.
Envy feeds off objective data, but it’s anything but objective. It has a skewed perception on how to achieve happiness. Getting the car your neighbor has, having a baby, showing off an achievement, going on vacation, or making the best-seller list will not, repeat, NOT make you, me, or anyone happy for more than a day or two. Learning to accept things you cannot change, will.
You might try to blame other people for your envy. You complain about friends posting vacation pictures online. They’re boasting, you say; flaunting it in your face. That’s another thing envy does. It lies when it says everything is about you. It’s not about you. Your friends didn’t post their vacation photos to make you feel inferior, they were trying to share their experience. When you feel envy, you do it entirely on your own. You’re not obligated to feel inferior; you’re only expected to look at the pictures and like them if you thought they were nice.
What advice do I have for the envious? I generally urge you to lean into feelings. Go ahead and feel them, I usually say; it’s easier and more illuminating that way. Most feelings have a positive purpose and, when you close yourself up from them, you forsake a good thing. Envy is not like that. Don’t go there. I’ve been down that road and it ain’t pretty. I can tell you, in great detail, that some people with connections and fancy Ivy League diplomas and thousands of Twitter followers will publish more books than those of us without, and it doesn’t mean their books are any better. Good for them. Their success doesn’t harm me. Dwelling on it changes nothing.
In his vision of Purgatory, Dante had the envious ridding themselves of envy by having their eyes sewn shut while they listened to stories of generosity. Maybe that’s what we should do. Blind yourself to the advantages of others. Focus on what you do have, the privileges you enjoy that others may wish they had, the reasons others may be envious of you. But, don’t stop there. Be charitable. Even if you think you have nothing, try sharing what you have; not in a patronizing way that humiliates the recipients, but in an unassuming way, for your own sake. Envy has been trying to tell you that you value justice; therefore, promote justice, not when you are powerless and consumed by envy, but when you have the power to do so.