- Envy is self-defeating because there will always be someone who has it better than we do.
- In love, we rejoice in the good of others; in envy, we have sorrow over their good.
- Rather than feeling bitter when others have it better, we can enjoy the good things we have and be happy for others.
In her book, Glittering Vices, Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung defines envy as feeling bitter when others have it better. When I’m envious, I feel my own lack or inferiority more strongly when I see others who have it better.
While many use “envy” and “jealousy” interchangeably, these are distinct ideas. Jealousy involves loving another person, or loving an object that you have, while fearing that they or it may be lost or taken away. Envy is different. When I’m envious of another person, I don’t like their status or success because it makes me feel my own lack of status or success more acutely. I think of myself as less. I’m bitter because they have it better.
Symptoms of Envy
There are several different symptoms of envy. Here’s a partial list:
- Feeling offended at the talents or good fortune of other people.
- Selfish forms of competition or rivalry.
- Taking pleasure in the distress of others.
- Prejudice against those we think of as inferior to ourselves or who seem to think we are inferior to them.
- Ridicule of others.
- Attributing false motives to others.
- Gossip, slander, and bullying.
- Passive–aggressive backstabbing.
- Making false accusations.
There are many more, but this helps us to see some ways that envy might be active in our lives.
The envious feel less loved, less admirable, and less worthy, because of what is lacking in who they are. In many ways, then, envy is an enemy of love. In love, we rejoice in the good of others. In envy, we have sorrow over their good. The envious cannot love others. They are bitter and want bad for them, and they want this in order to increase their own status. Truly loving someone else would lower their own self-worth, which is grounded in self-perceived status rather than true worth and value. The envious don’t have a secure self-worth that helps enable them to love. Their sense of self-worth is unstable, which short-circuits their ability to love others and rejoice with them. Love from others is simply a gift; it is not deserved. Envy sees love and worth as earned, even won, rather than received.
As I reflect on envy, another problem comes to mind. Envy is self-defeating. Why?
There will always be someone who has it better than we do. Several years ago I was reading about the super-rich in New York City, people who have more money than they know what to do with, who have reached the pinnacle of what our society sees as “success.” The article described how if someone purchased a new yacht that was three feet longer than another of the super-rich, that other person would feel compelled to get a new yacht, one that surpassed the yacht size of their rival. The details don’t matter. It can be a multi-million-dollar yacht, or just a newer car, a better smartphone, a promotion at work, and so on. But if it is right that someone else will always have it better, the wisest and best course of action includes giving up the race for status or honor. Ultimately, it is a race to nowhere.
What Is the Solution?
According to Konyndyk DeYoung, we must find a different foundation for our self-worth: “we need to work from a new vision of who we are, as unconditionally beloved children of God” (p. 80). For those who do not share her religious beliefs, reflecting on our basic worth and dignity as human beings, and on other people who deeply love us for who we are, can help us see our true self-worth.
There are several other things we can do to weaken the envy in our hearts and lives:
- Reflect on who we envy. This will tell us how we define our identity and where we feel vulnerable. Practice not comparing yourself to others as a way to engineer self-worth. We can learn to appreciate excellence for its own sake, wherever we encounter it. We can celebrate the excellence created or exemplified by others, and focus less on trying to bolster a distorted sense of self-worth by feeling offended or belittled by their excellence.
- Engage in activities with shared goods. These goods are those that we share with others or experience with others, rather than beat others to in competition. Friendship is one shared good. We can also enjoy nature, music, or a good movie with others.
- Engage in hidden acts of loving service. When we do something for the good of others, without anyone knowing it, this undermines competitiveness and the temptation to make comparisons of self-worth.
- The practice of gratitude. By intentionally focusing on the everyday gifts and blessings we have, we are better able see all the goodness we already have. In addition, we become less concerned about the goodness others have.
If we are intentional in these and other ways, we can avoid the vice of envy. Rather than feeling bitter when others have it better, we can enjoy the good things we have, and be happy for others as well. Even if they have it better!