When Is Envy a Good Thing?

A negative emotion that can drive change.

Posted Jul 11, 2016

This column is primarily about human motivation, and because of that I’ve considered writing about envy for years. It is a negative emotion which has been condemned by all cultures throughout history, yet it is a powerful motivator. Envy can be terribly destructive, and surprisingly... constructive.

Envy, as defined by Mirriam-Webster, is: painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.

People often mistakenly use the word “jealousy” when they mean “envy.” The feeling of jealousy, is the anxiety we feel when someone tries to take something we have earned, already own, or feel we have a right to. Envy is about coveting that which we don’t have.

I believe envy is rooted in fear. The fear of feeling weak, impotent, or powerless. Advertisers love to fan the flames of envy. Getting people to one-up the Jones, gets them to spend money.

Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Flickr Creative Commons

Helmut Schoeck from his book Envy states, “Envy is a drive which lies at the core of man’s life as a social being, and which occurs as soon as two individuals become capable of mutual comparison.” He also notes, “It is the great regulator in all personal relationships: fear of arousing it curbs and modifies countless actions.” Oftentimes, if someone raves too much about an accomplishment of ours, we feel it necessary to balance that by mentioning some misfortune we’ve experienced.

The closer people are within a society the greater the propensity for envy. We are more likely to resent our siblings, neighbors, and classmates because we make comparisons based on our common backgrounds.

First-borns almost immediately begrudge a new baby when they start to feel the loss of attention from their parents. I recall my next door neighbor telling me how his older sister, upon being shown him as a baby for the first time when she was three years old, announcing to her mother, “Mommy, I don’t like him; birth him back!”

When my sons were little, I noticed my older son envying some of my younger son’s accomplishments in sports. I tried to help him see that the advantage his little brother enjoyed was the opportunity of getting to watch him play, and learn from his mistakes. Meanwhile my younger son envied him getting to do everything first while he had to sit on the sidelines.

I have envied; and have been envied. It’s not a terribly strong emotion for me, but I’ve been guilty of it as recently as this week: reading the Facebook posts of friends who are enjoying fabulous vacations, retiring early, or reaching an achievement I haven’t yet attained. Humor columnist, Harold Coffin, once noted, “Envy is the art of counting the other fellow's blessings instead of your own.” When I recognize the feeling, I have to remind myself that I made different choices in my life with results that were equally satisfying; then I am able to move on and share in their joy. This quote from Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher, really gets at the heart of the matter, “Envy comes from people's ignorance of, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.”

Envy is also spawned by feelings of injustice. Most societies strive to suppress envy because of how destructive it can be. In 18th century France, the ideas of the Enlightenment diminished the belief in the Devine Right of Kings which meant the nobility were no different than average men. The aristocracy, jealous of its power, did not wish to yield any of it; which in turn fomented a sense of envy among the common people and led to the bloody French Revolution.

Schoeck also notes that, “Most communities have developed or adapted customs and views that enable individual members of a tribe to be unequal in one way or another without being harmed by the envy of the others.” It’s a balancing act. Many government programs are designed to limit envy: old-age retirement funds, welfare, free education and libraries, universal healthcare, and access to national parks and other state-owned recreation areas.

For most of its history, the United States has kept envy in check because of the economic opportunities freedom offers its people. In America, you could put your resentment to work by starting your own business and creating wealth for yourself. Homer G. Barnett, an American anthropologist, stated, “Envious men innovate to compensate for their physical, economic or other handicaps.” It was the envy of American prosperity that drove the desire for democracy around the globe.

In recent years, however, government regulation, high taxes, and inflation have limited those opportunities, which in turn has increased the demand for government benefit programs; all of which inhibits economic growth even further. The faltering economy in the United States has increased feelings of injustice and envy.

The best cure for envy is prosperity, and the best thing about envy is that it sometimes motivates innovation. So, the next time you get irritated by the unfairness of someone having more than you, channel that energy into changing the situation yourself.

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist/speaker and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of ...and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; The Annoying Ghost Kid, a humorous children's book about dealing with a bully; and the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places. For more information on Robert, please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.