Envy Me

Aristotle defined envy as the pain caused by the good fortune of others.Often used interchangeably, but not to be confused with, jealousy (which describes the fear of losing something), envy is longing for something you don’t have. In the case of Snow White, the object of the evil Queen’s envy was her youth and beauty.In Debra’s case, it’s wealth. The 34-year-old freelance makeup artist was envious whenever Facebook “friends” posted photos from trips. Her budget was too tight for travel. Once she began receiving updates on her iPhone, “I was checking it constantly,” she says. “It made me feel crappy.”MORE: Self-Esteem via FacebookEnvy can be helpful if it spurs you on. You might say to a friend, “I wish I had muscles like that” and sign up with her trainer. In fact, Dutch, Russian and other languages distinguish between what psychologists in English call “benign envy,” which is more like admiration, and dark or “malignant” envy. Dark envy includes anger and the desire to make the two of you equal–even by doing harm.Debra wasn’t about to attack her traveling Facebook acquaintances, but they weren’t motivating her, either.Unlike Debra, we often don’t admit our envy to ourselves. Research suggests that we compare ourselves to others automatically, often unconsciously, and if we decide that we’re inferior or have less in some way that’s important—be it beauty, intelligence or photos of Florence–we feel hostile and focus on our perceived rival’s faults and lacks. That’s why so many co-workers gossip. They don’t realize they’re envious.MORE: Gossip Can Be Good For HealthRichard Smith, an expert on envy who teaches psychology at the University of Kentucky, recalls a psychotherapist saying, ‘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.’’Envy is NormalEnvy is common, a “normal emotion,” Smith adds. It’s both more likely, and tougher, among people who are close, especially if they have related ambitions. If your sister is a more talented writer, you see how her talent enhances her life over time. If you believe you have as much talent, but she’s doing better, you feel worse.  This kind of persistent envy is rough on her and others in your shared world. As one mother says of her two daughters, “Nancy is–and has always been–so envious of Mary. It’s been painful for us all.”Celebrating the joys and successes of members of our inner circle is expected, and a steady source of happiness when we can do it sincerely. “I’ve had friends who were doing wildly well–even at something I was struggling with–and I remember always feeling I got something good from their success, hope or shared pleasure,” says Lisa, a 53-year-old editor. When you feel bad instead, you lose out. You’re probably ashamed as well. Lisa, however, does feel envious of her talented daughter. “It’s squashed a lot by my breathtaking love for her. If she were just a friend I might be swamped by it and unable to be her friend, and I’d hate myself for that.”“At any time, with any person, you may feel a twinge of envy,” says psychologist Gregory Jantz, author of “Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology and Social Networking,” in which he helps readers navigate the particular pain of online envy.Online, envy is fed not by intimacy, but ignorance. “Face-braggers” omit the less glowing details. The same applies to bloggers, with their apparently charmed lives and productivity. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become entirely un-envious,” says one knitting blogger.  I know it’s a façade – that their homes get messy, and they fight with their husbands.”QUIZ: Are You Life Satisfied?How to Identify Envy in OthersSome people are so afraid of being envied that they hold themselves back. As Nina, a 45-year- old entrepreneur recalls, “As a girl, I knew I was pretty and was afraid that other girls would be envious of me. So, I didn’t try to look my best.”  Tara, a 50-year-old writer, recalls when a book agent called her, saying her first novel was “brilliant.” “My first emotion was fear. I thought, ‘I’m going to lose all my friends.’”Silence or dismissal when you report successes may indeed be a sign of dark envy in others. You might keep your distance “if you tend to feel deflated and defeated after conversations–online or off,” says Jantz. Lisa describes a friend in graduate school who never finished his first-year project. “He often lashed out at me when I’d pass some hurdle. He’d say, “Sure, I could do my qualifying paper, too, if it weren’t on such a stupid topic.’”Once you recognize envy, however, it may lose its sting. As Lisa says of her graduate school buddy, “Otherwise, he was dear and supportive and a great friend.”The solution may be to crow less, applaud your friend more, pay more attention to her or find other topics and arenas where you don’t compete.MORE: Magic of Being MindfulStilling Your Own EnvySolomon Schimmel, a professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College in Boston, suggests thinking about what you have that your friend doesn’t. Recall the price she paid for her success and your own choices. Finally, remind yourself that your envy hurts and doesn’t give you what you’re missing.With your closest connections, confess. Maria, a 30-year-old TV producer, was annoyed when a childhood friend–a gay man–seemed to be boasting too much about his boyfriend’s new apartment. “We grew up together and have similar jobs, so inevitably we compete,” she says. Maria and her own mate weren’t yet ready for an apartment purchase. When she talked to her friend about her envy, “He said he would feel the same way. I think part of me did feel excited about him. When I got that off my chest, all of me got a chance to be happy.”If Facebook stokes envy and you cut back, Jantz recommends finding a substitute activity. You may feel worse for a while. “At the core will be the same fears and sense of lack that fuel feelings of envy on Facebook,” he says. “But being unplugged gives you an opportunity to observe these thoughts and feelings.” (Debra finally deleted her Facebook account, and is glad she did.)MORE: Sitting Too Long Can KillOnline or off, minimizing the pain of envy requires self-acceptance. Leslie, a 50-year-old scientist who regrets not having children, often feels envious of mothers. Her boyfriend gave her this remedy, which works for her: Ask yourself, “If I could be that other person instead of myself, who would I pick?”“Deep down I want to survive and be myself,” she says.

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