For me, the emotion is all too familiar. See that cute girl on the subway? The one with curly blonde hair, glittery tights, and knee-high leather boots? You might simply admire her footwear. I’ll make up an amazing fake life for her. And then I’ll envy that life. Because that’s what I do on the train. Why, yes. I do have a serious problem.
Each year, I make the same resolution: Think more charitable thoughts. And each year I find myself wallowing in the green, weed-choked pools of envy, harboring ill will toward my fellow — more successful, more attractive, more talented — man.
What exactly is envy? Richard Smith and Sung Hee Kim, psychologists at the University of Kentucky, define it as “an unpleasant, often painful emotion characterized by feelings of inferiority, hostility, resentment caused by an awareness of a desired attribute enjoyed by another person.” Aristotle had a simpler definition: “Envy is pain at the good fortune of others.” In other words, the flip side of schadenfreude.
The feeling is brought on by a perceived injustice. Why does Candice earn twice what I do when she has half the experience? Why did I get the smallest bonus when I’ve been at this company the longest. “That’s not fair!” our brains scream before falling into a pit of despair and resentment. People tend to reserve envy for people similar to themselves. So you’re more likely to envy the success of the coworker who shares your cubicle than you are to envy Angelina Jolie’s acting abilities.
Envy isn’t quite the same thing as jealousy, although the two are often confused. “Envy involves cases in which another person has what we want but cannot have, whereas jealousy involves the threat of losing someone to a rival,” write Smith and Kim.
Why do we experience envy? Some researchers argue that the emotion’s ubiquity suggests it may have once provided an evolutionary advantage. Evolutionary psychologists David Buss and Sarah Hill posit that it is a mechanism for keeping tabs on how we are doing in comparison to our rivals. When resources are limited, it pays to compare yourself with others. By besting your rivals, you ensure that you get the lion’s share of the resources. Fall behind, however, and your brain sends out an alert — envy. This emotion prompts the stragglers “to strive for a better, more desirable position, regardless of their standing in an absolute sense,” Buss and Hill write. “Such individuals would have left their more complacent competitors — those not concerned with their relative standing — in the evolutionary dust.”
I find this explanation pretty unsatisfying. For example, why can’t the alert be a more wholesome emotion, like longing or admiration? Why would we need the hostility and ill will that come with envy? I also have a hard time believing that envy is a good motivator. Envy rarely inspires me to take action. Quite the opposite, in fact. In a 2009 New York Times article, Smith puts it this way: “Envy is corrosive and ugly, and it can ruin your life. If you’re an envious person, you have a hard time appreciating a lot of the good things that are out there, because you’re too busy worrying about how they reflect on the self.” So remind me again, how is envy an evolutionary advantage?
Maybe it’s not. In study published in October, Hill and her colleagues found that envy induced by reading fictional profiles about wealthy attractive students seemed to improve memory and attention in a group of college students. But when students were asked to read fictional profiles and then solve a word puzzle, those who had read about wealthy, attractive students quit trying to solve the anagrams more quickly than those who had read about average students. They simply gave up. Not a good survival strategy.
So maybe envy isn’t a sin or a way to get a leg up on our rivals. Maybe it’s an unfortunate fluke. Either way, it’s something I’ll be trying to avoid in 2012. I’m going to heed this sweet recommendation from advice-columnist Sugar: “When you feel like crap because someone has gotten something you want you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. You remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own.”