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.”
Envy 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.
Richard 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 Normal
Envy 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.”
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