As readers of this series on envy have become aware, envy is a foundational process with both cognitive and affective components. Thinking and feeling guide all behaviors. They influence how we perceive, evaluate, make choices, and---in the end---perform in real life.
Envy does exert "monkey business"---mischievous self-undermining---when it goes unnoticed, as it typically does.
Understanding envy as it operates in nonconscious mental processing is complex. Important features, described from a consciously aware perspective, can be relatively straightforward and understandable.
Unconscious Envy Sparks Perception of Contrasts
One of envy's functions is perceiving contrasts, which implies seeing differences. Sensing differences evokes value judgments of superior versus inferior. Thus, choices stem from nonconscious processes emerging in awareness because of perceiving differences. Such perceptions help one to adapt to change, increase survival, and refine the quality of life. Sensing differences correlates with assigning value to experience: poor, good, better, best, or bad, inferior, less desirable.
Perception is not an individual function. It is the product of the individual and the environment that sculpts it. The inevitable social forces around have an impact inseparable from mere individual perceptions in isolation. Family, friends, social context, the media, and so forth robustly influence an individual’s arriving at personal conclusions. Individuals come to conclusions by independent thought and yielding to group thought.
Given typical people in typical social settings, several major factors contribute to ultimate decision-making. Of fundamental importance is perspective–taking. This denotes the individual’s ability to comprehend both personal views and those of others that may be different. This presumes a capacity for the consensual understanding of “objective information” and its harmonization or clash with one’s own subjective positions.
Put differently, one must be able to integrate information rationally to achieve a healthy reality sense. Perspective-taking is the human mind’s key unlocking social intelligence and mental health. It modulates the harsh contrasts that innate envy automatically evokes.
The capacity for perspective-taking becomes more or less developed by adolescence. Social interactions help set up a sense of personal identity congruent with group standards. Group norms become guidelines for further thinking and behavior. Another growth promoting factor is the inevitable disagreements and discrepancies arising from individual-group interactions. Constructive disagreements typically stimulate further exploration and creative conclusions. Perspective-taking, in a notable way, permits rational discussion and enhances problem-solving skills. Thus, appreciating similarities and differences and working with them is health promoting. This capacity rests on the healthy maturation of envy.
How Does Envy Thwart or Enhance Cooperation?
Holding personal views that do not conform to convention puts one in contrast to the group. How the individual interacts with others to manage this reflects agreeableness and cooperativeness. Constructive dialogue is beneficial and generates enthusiasm, problem-solving, and new ideas. Destructive dialogue thwarts intellectual exploration.
Envy Theory asserts that unconscious envy is healthy and adaptive when used to perceive differences and make constructive, quality of life promoting evaluations. Unconscious envy becomes malignant envy when it perceives contrasts as irreconcilable at every level of discourse. Such rigid thinking is fixed and lacks the fluidity to entertain novel perspectives.
Steadfast thought is common in several conventional belief systems: various political affiliations, religions, ideologies, and so forth. By contrast, when beliefs become grossly extreme and out of touch with adaptive living, they deteriorate into “envy’s spoiling cascade.” This goes beyond mere ideational and verbal derogation. It’s devaluation and spoiling may take the form of destructive interpersonal and group behaviors. Examples include malignant stereotype bias, brutal sectarian violence, psychotic eruptions of "inexplicable" murder, and actual war.
The Healthy Maturation of Envy
The healthy maturation of envy brings various degrees of integration and reconciliation to mental functions. These appear as perspective-taking and advance emotional states of empathy. This is how envy may enhance healthy cooperation. Unbridled envy, if not identified and managed, thwarts cooperation and undermines group processes. Family life, marital relations, person-to-person relations, and relations between nations suffer.
Envy, a fundamental part of the mind, is an opportunity. It remains for each to generate the motivation to examine this opportunity, and design positive life narratives around its complex, hidden scaffolding.
Envy's Handiwork: Constructive or Destructive Design?
Besides understanding our individual innate predispositions, learning from the environment is essential for personal change to occur. Envy Theory endorses and gives special attention to positive values—constructive dialogue, nonviolent human coexistence, going beyond bedrock stereotyping of others, agreeableness, and cooperation. Helping behaviors show these values in concrete ways. The healthy maturation of envy presents an opportunity for achieving a life design of meaning and satisfaction.
The book, Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy, expands the aforementioned. The author's recent essay on Psychology Today, "Being a Sedulous Ape," is a "how to" about recognizing and remedying strategies with regard to envy.