"When Envy Doesn't Kill You...It Makes You Stronger"
Updated: Mar 6
Think about the last time you felt discomfort when seeing someone you know succeed or get something you really wanted. Feelings of envy can can detrimental effects on our mental health --- it can make us angry, sad, and even hurt our relationships with people we care about.
Nowadays, there are more triggers of envy than ever as we are surrounded by social media posts of our friends' perfect-looking food and vacations. It's nearly impossible avoid feelings of envy.
Do you want to know more about envy? Why do we feel envy, and most importantly, what can we do to take control of our envy and even benefit (believe it or not) from this experience?
Let's find out!
What is Envy? What's the Difference between Envy and Jealousy?
Interestingly, people often mix up feelings with envy with jealousy. I bet you have heard people say "I'm so jealous of you!", but often what they really meant was"I'm so envious of you!" (but you hardly ever hear people say that).
To feel envy is wanting what someone else has and only requires two people - you and the other person. For example, you may envy your coworker in your team who just got promoted, but you didn’t.
Envy has also been described as the "pain" we feel seeing "another person's good fortune" (Tai et al., 2012) accompanied by feelings of “inferiority, hostility, and resentment” (Smith & Kim, 2007, p. 49). In fact, a neuroscience study found that feelings of envy activates the brain regions associated with pain!
To feel jealous means “to feel threatened, insecure, or protective of something you already have”, which involves three people. For example, it is common to feel jealous of your partner's friends, because you feel they threaten your relationship with your partner.
What Causes Envy?
Envy stem from comparing with others like us who possess something that we want that we don't have. For example, there are three main sources of envy:
1) Upward Comparisons
It is our natural tendency to compare ourselves with others in order to gauge how well we are doing relative to others (Ganegoda, & Bordia, 2019). But when we compare ourselves to others who are better than us, it can make us feel bad about ourselves and lead to envy.
Research shows that, interestingly, we tend to be more envious of others who we think are more like us (Smith & Kim, 2007). We tend to believe that in a fair world similar individuals should get similar advantages. But when we see someone who is like us get an advantage, we are more likely to think it is unfair and feel like we are at a disadvantage. This is why we tend to compare ourselves to our neighbors, closest friends, and coworkers instead of someone like Elon Musk.
We also envy things that are more important to us and that we want the most (Smith & Kim, 2007). When we see other people doing better at something we care a lot about, it makes us feel inferior. For example, if you love to travel but don't want kids, you're more likely to be jealous of a friend who just posted about their vacation than of a friend who just posted about their new baby.
Negative Consequences of Envy
1) Mental Well-Being
It's clear that feeling envious is uncomfortable and can cause a lot of mental pain. In fact, research suggests envy predicts depression (Jiang & Wang, 2020), and other negative emotions like hostility and resentment (Smith & Kim, 2007). Being envious is also linked to having low self-esteem and life satisfaction (Smith et al., 1999).
2) Social Well-Being
Envy can also hurt our relationships with others. Research suggests being envious is related to greater dislike toward and distancing from the envied person (Smith & Kim, 2007). Moreover, envy can lead individuals to bring down their envied person, undermine their reputations and performance (Cohen-Charash, 2009; Smith & Kim, 2007).
The Sunny Side of Envy
Despite the negative side of envy, the benign form of envy can also motivate us to become better. In fact, envy has been found to be related to motivation to learn from the envied targets, and higher work motivation and performance. This kind of benign envy is more likely when we perceive our envied targets' outcome was well-deserved, such as through hard work (Bolló et al., 2020).
5 Ways to Cope & Make the Best Out of Your Envy
💡1. Acknowledge Your Envy
The feeling of envy is a universal experience. Don't feel ashamed and judge yourself for feeling this way. Accepting a feeling is the first step in coping with it.
You may even open up about your envy with a friend you trust. This will help you feel less weird about how you feel and give your friend a chance to talk about their own experiences with envy. You'll feel less alone.
💡2. Take Control of Your Envy
If you often feel envious, it might help to set aside 10 minutes of "envy time" each day, when you can freely write down what you're feeling or think. This exercise will help you feel more in control and keep your feelings of envy in check.
💡3. Reflect on WHY You Feel Envious
Think about all the times you've wanted what someone else had:
Who did you want to be like?
What did they have that you didn't?
You might notice a pattern. What you tend to be envious can reveal an unmet need, clarify what you really want and even point you to where you want to go in life. Acknowledge your desires without judging them, and create an action plan for how you can get what you want.
💡4. Challenge Your Assumptions
We have feelings of envy often because of our innate assumptions and unhelpful beliefs about the world. Below are examples of some assumptions that you may have and cognitive-behavioral techniques (Leahy et al., 2021, p. 7) that can help you challenge those assumptions:
Their success shows that I am falling behind
Why does life have to be a race with people falling behind? Why not look at your life as your path, your interests, your values?
I should do better than others
Why should you do better? Why can’t you accept who you are with human limitations and a range of possibilities. If you think that you should do better-or be the best—would you apply this demand on others? Why not give yourself credit for the things that you do?
I can’t stand it that they succeed
Think of all the things you can still do even if they succeeded. How are you really any worse off if they have some success?
I can’t accept any unfairness
Unfairness is part of life and not accepting it will only make you miserable. It might make sense to challenge unfairness or seek justice, but accepting that unfairness exists is part of living in the real world
💡5. Turn Envy Into An Inspiration
What can you learn from the person you are envious of?
What are some positive qualities they have that have helped them become successful?
Talk to the person you are envious of to ask them for advice. The more you find out about how they got to where they are, the more likely you will see their success as well-deserved and will naturally reduce your feelings of envy towards them.
For example, you found out the reason why your coworker looks so fit is because they workout in the gym everyday for 2 hours. This will not only turn your envy into admiration for the, but will also motivate you to start working out more so you can also become more fit!
By accepting your feelings of envy, determining the root causes of your envy and getting inspired from your target of envy, I hope you can turn your envy into a source of motivation to strive for your goals and live the life you want!
Next time you experience feelings of envy, try out 1 strategy above to ease your envy!
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You May Be Interested In...
Bolló, H., Háger, D. R., Galvan, M., & Orosz, G. (2020). The role of subjective and objective social status in the generation of envy. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 513495.
Cohen‐Charash, Y. (2009). Episodic envy. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(9), 2128-2173.
Ganegoda, D. B., & Bordia, P. (2019). I can be happy for you, but not all the time: A contingency model of envy and positive empathy in the workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(6), 776.
Jiang, X., & Wang, J. (2020). The causal relationship between envy and depression: A cross-lagged regression analysis. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 48(12), 1-9.
Leahy, R. L. (2021). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for envy. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 45(3), 418-427.
Smith, R. H., & Kim, S. H. (2007). Comprehending envy. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 46.
Smith, R. H., Parrott, W. G., Diener, E. F., Hoyle, R. H., & Kim, S. H. (1999). Dispositional envy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 1007-1020.
Tai, K., Narayanan, J., & McAllister, D. J. (2012). Envy as pain: Rethinking the nature of envy and its implications for employees and organizations. Academy of Management Review, 37(1), 107-129.
Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T., & Okubo, Y. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Science, 323(5916), 937-939.