Wicked Thoughts

Why we love to gloat and derive pleasure from the misfortunes of others.

Envy: What Good Can We Glean from Such a Toxic Emotion?

Envy has a nasty side, but it can also be a useful signal of what matters to us.

Envy has a scent of death about it. It seems to creep up, unbidden, from some filthy gutter in the depths of the soul. It grabs you by the throat, squeezing tight. You taste its bitter poison in the back of your mouth.

Envy has claws, too. If you see yourself as a kind and decent person, you might be shocked by the nasty thoughts your mind conjures up when envy strikes. You might not admit these bleak fantasies to anyone else (or even, fully, to yourself). But something inside you wants to take what the envied person has. You want to see the person fall—or at least be brought down a notch. And if something bad does happen to the envied person, you might take a certain grim pleasure in it—what Germans term schadenfreude, roughly translated as “shameful joy.” (For more on schadenfreude, check out Dr. Richard Smith’s new book, The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature.)

It’s little wonder that we call envy the green-eyed monster. Given its destructive power in our emotional lives and relationships, it certainly seems to deserve its time-honored place on the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. And in terms of its potential to heap misery upon us, envy is tough to beat.

But wait a minute. Even if envy is generally a bad thing, could it contain any seeds that could be used for good in our lives? Before tossing it on the trash heap, let’s see if this ugly feeling called envy contains anything that could possibly be redeemed.

One good aspect of intense negative emotions is that they have “signal value.” In other words, they tell us—often in a loud and obnoxious way—that something’s wrong. And if we pay attention to these signals of trouble, we might be able to turn things around.

Several years ago Richard Smith edited a book entitled Envy: Theory and Research. In one chapter of this book (“Antidotes to Envy: A Conceptual Framework”), Anne Zell and I proposed that envy can serve as a signal of desire, deficit, and disconnection. Listening to these signals may help us to manage feelings of envy. I’ll briefly summarize a few of our ideas here. 

Desire.  Envy tells us a lot about our desires, because we tend to feel envy in areas that we see as personally relevant and important. I remember feeling an unexpected wave of envy when reading a letter from a friend who had traveled to several exotic locales. It wasn’t until I felt this envy that I recognized a yearning to travel to similar places myself. My friend hadn't done anything wrong, of course; but hearing about her adventures awakened my desire. And since I didn't recognize what was happening inside me, my initial response was to feel envious of my friend.

Of course, not every desire that we identify will be healthy or wise to pursue. And some desires we simply can’t meet, such as a wish to be younger or taller. But it’s worth taking a close look at the desires underlying your envy. You just might discover a dream.

Deficit. Envy stings because it reminds us that we have fallen short in an area that matters to us. We aren’t as smart, successful, attractive or good as we would like to be. It can be humbling to admit our limitations, but doing so can help us. In some areas, we can strive to improve—to build new skills, to try harder, to cultivate good habits. In other areas where we have less control, we may find peace by learning to accept our limitations.

Disconnection. Envy damages relationships by dividing and alienating people. It sets us against others by fueling thoughts of relative status, competition, and resentment. Envy can also cause us to lash out with hurtful words or actions, creating more rifts. To overcome this divisive mindset, try to find something--anything--that you can do to move toward interpersonal harmony and healing. Restrain that impulse to tear the other person down through gossip. Look for something that you like about the person, or focus on something that you can learn from him or her. Even if you're not looking for a close bond, you can make a conscious effort to cultivate warm feelings toward the person you've been envying. For example, some people connect with others through techniques such as loving-kindness meditation or prayer for another person's well-being. Regardless of the exact strategy that you choose, you'll find some protection from envy’s hostile undercurrents if you make a deliberate effort to pursue peace and harmony.

Remember, too, that the person you’ve been envying doesn’t have a perfect life. As shown in Dr. Kristin Neff's research on self-compassion, we all have our share of sadness and suffering; in fact, this is a big part of what connects us as human beings.

There's little doubt that envy is a dark aspect of human nature. But if we see envy as a signal of deeper issues that need attention--an unfulfilled dream, an area of limitation, or a broken relationship--we might be able to find a few glimmers of hope in the shadows.

Wicked Thoughts