The feeling of envy is rarely talked about, but is probably more common than ever. Maybe with good reason: the richest 1% own nearly half of all the world’s wealth.  And at the same time, we have Facebook and Instagram to rub this fact in in real time. 

We rarely admit that we’re envious since most of us keep our envy a secret.

Causes of envy can include attractiveness, popularity, material wealth, skills, memory, intellect, mental health… basically anything. Even super-wealthy people who inherited their fortunes envy those who earn their way through life.

Yes, we all know envy is toxic.

But here are some specific reasons why envy is bad for us:

Envy provides the wrong kind of motivation. 

When we’re driven by envy to achieve, our decision making gets instantly clouded. We think short term. We think selfishly. We’re like managers of publicly owned companies who optimize for the next earnings report rather than for the long-term welfare of the business. It leads to destruction.

Envy makes us weaker. 

Visions of ourselves are self-fulfilling. We literally become weaker when we see ourselves as smaller, weaker, poorer or somehow less than others. Tell yourself you’re a poor runner, and you’ll run slower and give up sooner. Tell yourself you’re getting old, and you will accelerate your aging.

Envy destroys what we already have.

We may be in a loving relationship with mutual respect, but if we focus on the weaknesses, like one partner making less money, or not being as beautiful / handsome / charming as your best friend’s partner, then we will certainly weaken the relationship we currently have. We’ll see more flaws, real or imagined. We will take the gold we have and transform it into brass. It’s the wrong kind of alchemy.

Envy is inaccurate.

Consider this: your friend has a great job at Google and is on a fast-track to management. Their professional life seems great. You aren’t doing anything nearly as glamorous. So you’re envious. But then consider this: are you envious of the entirety of their life? Would you really want to switch bodies? Everyone has their struggles, so thinking deeply about it, you’ll see that your successful friend may have had a difficult childhood, or trouble managing their weight, or lacks love in their life. More often than not, you don’t actually envy anyone in their entirety.

That said, envy in small doses can be helpful.

If we can recognize and reign in our envy, we can use it as a source of guidance. We know we’re envious when:

  • learning of the good fortune of others makes us mad or sad.
  • we feel inferior to a specific person.
  • when we want to have the things someone else has, especially if they connote stature (like an expensive watch or car).

When we recognize envy, we should first dive deeper and ask:

  • If I had that [object of envy], would my life really be different?
  • Is it realistic to believe I could ever get that [object of envy]?
  • If I can get it, would I enjoy taking the steps to get acquire [object of envy]?

If the answer to any of these is “no,” then we should immediately let go of the idea. There’s nothing productive about dwelling on it. If the answer to all three is yes, then we should change our actions and chart a new course to achieve the goal that we so envy.

What about when others envy us?

While it may be true that others envy us, there’s no value in acknowledging or thinking about it. Here’s why:

  • We can’t do anything productive or positive with this knowledge.
  • We can never really know what others are thinking.
  • It’s usually not true: people think more about themselves than others.
  • We become blind to our faults. We dismiss criticism as jealousy.

There’s a big difference between seeking justice and feeling envy.

When people are wronged, their anger is valid. This is why it’s important to listen to peoples’ grievances and, when actual injustice is happening, do what we can to correct it. For example, people who are systematically discriminated against don’t protest out of jealousy, but because they are suffering injustice.

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