Through the lens of envy

As defined by Psychology Today, envy is a reaction to your lacking something that someone else...
As defined by Psychology Today, envy is a reaction to your lacking something that someone else has. Photo: Getty Images
Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

Envy is a powerful emotion. But it's up to you how you use it, Jan Aitken writes.

I recently came across a comment about envy that made me laugh. Author Joseph Epstein  quipped that, "of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all".

Coincidently, or not, a blog arrived in my email shortly thereafter from Stephen Guise. He opened with: "I felt envious recently, and if I had to give it a review, it would be 1 out of 5 stars."

Was there something here I was meant to learn? What is envy? Why do we feel it? It’s not considered a good thing to feel or to express. I’ve never spent any time thinking about it in any depth. Have I ever been envious? Yes, but not so much now I’m a bit older. Why do we feel envy? Is jealousy related to envy? Can we avoid it? Should we avoid it?

So many questions.

I started to think a little more deeply about envy and I stopped laughing.

I started with the definitions of envy and jealousy in an attempt to understand the nuances of both. In my experience, when hearing people comment on envy and/or jealousy they tend to be used interchangeably.

Psychology Today provided the most succinct descriptions: Envy is a reaction to your lacking something that someone else has, while jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something, but most commonly losing someone.

Envy is often a two-person situation whereas jealousy is a three-person situation.

Well, so far so good, I had a better understanding of what was what, but why do we feel envious? What’s at the root of it?

Envy has been around for as long as we have. There’s nothing new in any of us feeling envy. It’s thought that envy may have been useful in spurring our distant ancestors on towards improving individually and collectively (e.g. "he has a better spear than I do. I want a better one", and so a new improved spear is made or bargained for). Envy has also appeared in all civilisations’ myths and stories, usually with a bad outcome.

Today, in our ever hyper-connected media-led world we can find ourselves constantly comparing our own situation with that of others. They have a bigger, flasher car, house, barbecue, Christmas tree ... the list goes on. Everyone’s life seems to be more fun and less stressful than yours. You can find yourself feeling inferior, frustrated and resentful. That is an uncomfortable space to be in.

Guise asks the question, "If you don’t think envy equates to an inferiority crisis, why else would you be envious of someone?"

It’s a good question: if you are capable of obtaining whatever it is the other person has then why be envious? Just because someone has something you don’t, doesn’t mean you can’t have it as well.

What happens when you become envious is you personalise the feeling against whoever it is that has what you want. Envy transforms "I want a convertible Mustang" into "Harold has a convertible Mustang! What makes Harold so special? I resent Harold". This skews our focus. Now we’re not even thinking about how we could get a Mustang, because we’re too busy resenting Harold for having one. Several things can follow on:

We’re too focused on Harold to move on and accomplish anything useful.

• Harold is probably a nice guy. He doesn’t deserve the green-eyed monster stare.

• There are a lot of Mustangs out there, and Harold owning one doesn’t prevent you or anyone else from owning one.

• We generalise and assume everything about Harold’s life is "better" than ours.

We’re implying that we are inferior to Harold, when we’re not.

Envy also blinds us to the bigger picture. For example, when we envy Harold for his shiny convertible Mustang we mostly ignore all the efforts and sacrifices that have gone into buying it, we forget what it costs to insure, maintain and run it, we forget that it’s probably not driveable too many days of the year because of the weather or lack of time.

When we confront envy as our own issue, rather than viewing it as someone else’s fault we can grow and find a healthier way to deal with it.

You can use envy to help you focus on what you want to achieve, on what is really important to you. What would it mean to have the Mustang? What does it really represent in your life? Does having it fit with your values and standards? What would you gain by having it, what would you lose by having it? What are you good at? What are you not-so-good at? What do you want in life? What paths are most likely to take you there?

Our paths are unique. Even if you would trade lives with Harold you can’t. You only have control over yourself. Our mission is to learn how to walk our own path. What actions best fit the outcomes you want? Remember, the grass is not always greener.

Psychiatrist Neel Burdon highlights that envy is also a question of attitude. Whenever you come across someone who is better or more successful than you are, you can choose to react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation. What you choose will affect you the most.

Envy is a normal human emotion that shows up for all of us. There is nothing wrong with that. However, what we do with it will dictate whether it’s a clarifying and motivating state or one that drags us down. So, when envy shows up, how do you want to respond?

Do you want to use it as a lens to help you focus on what you really want and what’s really important to you or will it be just a blunt instrument that promotes resentment, frustration and inferiority? Choose wisely.

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to—aitken


"Look at what the other bloke's getting!" was the moan in the Public Service, when the annual salary review was published. In that regard, 'Envy' was structural, intended to spur Competition, and, eventually Productivity.

In this (now elitist) setting of the highly paid workforce, they'd moan if their ass was on fire and someone put it out. Envy diminished workplace Solidarity, as it was based on individual concern. Collective unionism enhanced workplace relations.

Well put Jan !!!
Not sure those that are taugh identy politics would understand but great to see someone have a go at getting the message through.
I think Potocki is having trouble understanding the concepts you speak of.

Do you judge people's cognitive abilities by mere linear type?

Mine is a Sociological view. Envy breeds competition, and competition is part of an intentional structure that supposedly increases productivity.





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