Hide and Seek

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The Psychology and Philosophy of Envy

Of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.

‘Envy’ derives from the Latin invidia, which means ‘non sight’. In Inferno, Dante had the envious laboring under cloaks of lead, their eyes sewn shut with leaden wire. This etymology suggests that envy both arises from, and results in, a form of blindness or lack of perspective.

For envy to set in, three conditions have to be met. First, one must be confronted with a person (or persons) with a superior quality, achievement, or possession. Second, one must desire that quality for oneself, or wish that the other person lacked it. And third, one must be pained by that emotion.

In sum, envy is pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others. In Old Money, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. describes the beginning of the pain of envy as ‘the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air’.

In Envy, Joseph Epstein quipped that, of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Envy is mean, miserly, and petty, and arguably the most shameful of the deadly sins (the other six are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and pride). Our envy is hardly ever confessed, not even to ourselves. Envy is such a closely guarded secret that it can rankle to unravel it in an old friend, like discovering that your lifelong partner always had it in him or her to cheat on you.

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Although the terms are often used interchangeably, envy is not the same as jealousy. Whereas envy is the desire for possessing, jealousy is the fear of losing. Thus, jealousy is for something that you already possess—often a person, but also reputation, beauty, virginity, and so on. Compared to envy, jealousy is a lesser sin, and so easier to confess.

Envy should also be distinguished from yearning. Whereas yearning is for the general, envy is for the particular: some particular thing that is in the possession of some particular person or people.

Envy is timeless and universal, and deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Our tribal ancestors lived in fear of arousing the envy of the gods through their good luck or pride. According to the Book of Wisdom, it is ‘through the devil’s envy that death entered the world’. In Genesis, it is from envy that Cain murdered his brother Abel. In Greek mythology, it is Hera’s envy for Aphrodite’s beauty that sparked the Trojan War. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is out of envy that Duryodhana waged war against his cousins the Pandavas. 

Father! The prosperity of the Pandavas is burning me deeply! I cannot eat, sleep or live in the knowledge that they are better off than me!

Envy is especially directed at those with whom we compare ourselves, such as our cousins and relatives. Beggars do not envy millionaires, but other beggars who are more successful. In our age of equal opportunities and mass media, it is hardly surprising that envy is so rife, particularly when our culture of empiricism and consumerism emphasizes the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible.

For the Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, it is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered. The pain of envy is not caused by the desire for the advantages of others per se, but by the feeling of inferiority and frustration that this lack engenders.

Over time, our unhappiness can lead to physical health problems such as infections, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers, and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. We are, quite literally, consumed by our envy. 

At the same time, the mental energy expended on envy, and the reluctance to arouse it in others, holds us back from achieving our full potential as human beings. 

Envy also costs us friends and allies, and, more generally, undermines the closeness and satisfaction of our relationships. In some cases, it can even lead us to attack the interests of others, like an envious child who breaks the toy that he knows he cannot have.

Envy can also lead to some rather more subtle defensive reactions, such as ingratitude, irony, scorn, snobbery, and narcissism, which all have in common the use of contempt to minimize the existential threat posed by the advantages of others. Another common defense against envy is to incite it in others, reasoning that, if people are envious of me, I have no reason to be envious of them. 

Bottled up envy can morph into ressentiment, which is, essentially, projected envy: the reassignment of the pain that accompanies our sense of failure or inferiority onto a scapegoat (such as Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, or modern politicians and bankers), which can then be blamed for our ills and, in some cases, even sacrificed. 

Though carefully dissimulated, envy often surfaces in the form of Schadenfreude (‘Harm-Joy’), which is defined as pleasure in the misfortune of others—a pleasure that helps to sell the news, which is riddled with stories of disgraced politicians and fallen celebrities. While Schadenfreude is a relatively recent term, the emotion that it denotes dates back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle called it epikhairekakos, which has the merit of being even harder to pronounce than Schadenfreude. And the Hebrew Book of Proverbs explicitly warns against it.

Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

The fundamental problem of envy is that it blinds us to the bigger picture. The envious are as the captain of a ship, who navigates the stormy seas not by the stars in the sky, but by the tinted and distorted lens of his magnifying glass. Envy pulls us in every direction and none at all. By holding us back, it makes us even more apt to envy, giving rise to a vicious cycle of envy. And so we plod through hell under our cloaks of lead. 

But can envy not give rise to something positive? Does envy really not have any silver lining? It has variously been argued that envy, often under the more acceptable guises of compassion and brotherly love, is a force for social change that promotes democracy and equality. The politics of envy culminates in communism, the ideal of which is to create a society that is free from envy. In practice, however, people living under the banner of the sickle and hammer become not less but hyper envious, grassing on neighbors for the slightest of perceived advantages. As their lives become ever more dreary and monotonous, their human nature reasserts itself with a vengeance. A small number rise to become more equal than others, and these dear leaders then oppress their brethren, sometimes to the death, under the pretext of the greater good for all.

‘Socialism’ said Winston Churchill, ‘is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.’ Whereas envy is the sin of socialist societies, greed is the sin of capitalist ones. This greed is also driven by envy, but envy of a kind that seeks to level up rather than level down. And whereas you can opt out of a capitalist society, you cannot so easily opt out of a socialist one—or even leave, for that matter.

How to keep a lid on envy? So often when we envy, it is because we fail to see the bigger picture, to see all the efforts and sacrifices, and the flipsides. As Charles Bukowski wrote in a letter to Steven Richmond, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ It is easy to forget that the city banker has effectively sold his soul for his success, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy his money. If anything, he is to be pitied rather than envied. To avoid envy, one constantly has to reframe, and reframing requires perspective, which is just the thing that the envious lack.

In the Hindu tradition, ‘lucky’ people are merely enjoying the fruits of their past karmic actions, including the past karmic actions of their parents, who educated and helped them, and, by extension, the past karmic actions of all of their ancestors. Of course, in some cases, luck really is undeserved, making our envy all the more virulent. But inherent in the nature of true luck is that it tends to even out in the long term, and so there really is no point in everyone taking turns to envy everyone else. Nature compensates: if we don’t have one thing, we have another, even if it is not one of those things advertised on a billboard. While we envy, we focus on what we lack, forgetting all that we do have. That is why dispositions such as piety, humility, and gratitude can help to protect us against envy.

Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation. Emulation almost shares a definition with envy, but without the pain and bitterness part. This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy.

Why are some people able to feel emulous, while others are only capable of envy? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honorable or aristocratic disposition. In other words, while envy is the reaction of those with low self-esteem, emulation is the reaction of those with high self-esteem. 

So look out for a future post on self-esteem. 

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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