The Psychology and Philosophy of Envy
Of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.
Posted Aug 21, 2014
[Article revised on 2 May 2020.]
Joseph Epstein quipped that, of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. ‘Envy’ derives from the Latin invidia, ‘non-sight’. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the envious labour under cloaks of lead, their eyelids sewn tight with leaden wire—suggesting that envy arises from, or leads to, a form of blindness.
To feel envy, three conditions need to be met. First, we must be confronted with a person (or persons) with something—a possession, quality, or achievement—that has eluded us. Second, we must desire that something for ourselves. And third, we must be personally pained by the associated emotion or emotions. I say ‘personally pained’ because it is this personal dimension that separates envy from more detached feelings such as outrage or injustice.
In sum, envy is the personal pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others. In Old Money, Nelson W Aldrich Jr describes 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.’ Envy is mean and miserly, and arguably the most shameful of the deadly sins. Our envy is hardly ever confessed, often, not even to ourselves.
Many people say ‘jealous’ when what they really mean is ‘envious’. Envy and jealousy are subtly different constructs. If envy is the personal pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others, jealousy is the personal pain caused by the fear of losing one’s advantages to others, or sharing one’s advantages with others. Envy is covetous, jealousy is possessive. Jealousy is not circumscribed to the romantic sphere, but can also involve one’s friends, reputation, expertise, and so on. Compared to envy, jealousy is easier to admit to, suggesting that it might be the lesser of the two evils.
Envy is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and common to all times and people. Our tribal ancestors lived in fear of arousing the envy of the gods, whom they placated with elaborate rituals and offerings. In Greek mythology, it is Hera’s envy for Aphrodite that sparked off the Trojan War. In the Bible, it is from envy that Cain murdered Abel, and ‘through the devil’s envy that death entered the world’. And in the Hindu Mahabharata, it is from ‘burning envy’ that Duryodhana waged war against his cousins the Pandavas.
Envy tends to be directed towards those with whom we compare ourselves, those with whom we feel we are in competition. As Bertrand Russell wrote, ‘Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.’ Envy has never been a greater problem than it is today. Our age of equality encourages us to compare ourselves to one and all, and the Internet and social media make this all too easy, fanning the flames of our envy. And, by emphasizing the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible, our culture of empiricism and consumerism has eroded the one countervailing force capable of containing the blaze.
The pain of envy is caused not by the desire for the advantages of others per se, but by the feelings of inferiority and frustration occasioned by their lack in ourselves. Paradoxically, the distraction of envy and the dread of arousing it in others holds us back from achieving our full potential. Envy also costs us friends and allies, and, more generally, tempers, restrains, and undermines even our closest, most intimate relationships. In some cases, it can lead to acts of sabotage, as with the child who breaks the toy that it knows it cannot have. Over time, our anguish and bitterness may give rise to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia; and physical health problems such as infections, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. We are, quite literally, consumed by our envy.
Envy can also give rise to 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 defence against envy is to incite it in those whom we would envy, reasoning that, if they envy us, we have no reason to envy them.
Bottled up envy can also morph into ressentiment, which is the reassignment of the pain that accompanies our sense of failure or inferiority onto a scapegoat, such as immigrants or Jews, which can then be blamed for our ills, persecuted, and, in the end, sacrificed, like Jesus on the cross. Scapegoating is a burning issue which I discuss at greater length in my book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.
People generally take great care to disguise their envy. Even so, it may be betrayed through indirect expressions such as Schadenfreude, which is pleasure at the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude [German, ‘harm-joy’] helps to sell the news, which is riddled with stories of fallen celebrities, disgraced politicians, and the like. Although the term is modern—first attested, in German, in the 1740s—the emotion it denotes is much older. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle calls it epikhairekakia, which has the rare demerit of being even harder to pronounce.
But whatever we want to call it, the 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.
As the etymology suggests, the fundamental problem with envy is that it blinds us to the bigger picture. When in its grips, we are as the captain of a ship who navigates not by the stars in the firmament but by the distorted lens of an inverted telescope. The vessel veers hither and thither, and is soon wrecked by rock, reef, or storm. By thwarting us, envy makes us even more envious, opening up a vicious cycle of envy.
It has been argued that envy, usually under the more acceptable guise of outrage or compassion, is a force for social change that promotes democracy and equality. The politics of envy ends, of course, in communism, which aims at creating a society that is free from envy. But in practice, those who live under the hammer and sickle become not less but more envious, grassing on their neighbours for even the slightest of perceived advantages. Just as envy drives communism, so greed drives capitalism. Greed too can be fuelled by envy, but at least seeks, if not always succeeds, to level up rather than level down, to build rather than destroy.
So, how to keep a lid on envy? When we envy our neighbour for his shiny convertible car, we ignore or heavily discount all the efforts and sacrifices that have gone into affording and maintaining it, to say nothing of the risks and inconveniences of owning such a car. In the words of Charles Bukowski, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ And, of course, the same can also be said of a lady and her man.
In life, we are rich not only by what we have, but also and above all by what we do not. It is all too easy to forget that the investment banker or hedge fund manager 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 whatever advantages he may have acquired. Such a hollowed out husk is not to be envied but to be pitied. To keep a lid on envy, we have to keep on reframing, and reframing requires perspective.
What about those who have inherited wealth without effort or sacrifice? 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 nurtured and educated them, and of their grandparents, who nurtured and educated their parents, and so on.
In some instances, as with the lottery winner, luck is almost completely undeserved, making our envy all the more virulent. But inherent in the nature of luck is that it tends to balance out over time, and so there is really no point in everyone taking turns to envy everyone else. In the very long term, we tend to get what we deserve—and then, whoever we are, our luck runs out.
Nature compensates for its shortcomings: if we do not have one thing, we surely have some other, even if it is not the sort of thing that is advertised on billboards. But while we envy, we focus on what we lack rather than what we have and could otherwise be enjoying. Cultivating traits such as gratitude and humility can help us to develop proper perspective and defend against envy.
Ultimately, envy is a question of attitude. When we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation. Envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things that we lack, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we lack good things that others have. 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.
In the Rhetoric, 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 honourable or noble disposition.
In other words, whether we react with envy or emulation is a function of self-esteem.
Neel Burton is the author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.