The Antidote to Envy

A reader emails that she’s resentful and unhappy over other people’s success. Rich people, TV stars, neighbors who are thriving in business ‘ she feels they all are bringing her down with their accomplishments. Well, dear Reader, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ But unfortunately, so are envy and jealousy. For you to envy or resent somebody, you probably feel that they possess something valuable in their character, personality or possessions. Envy and jealousy are bad for you, and can contribute to emotional problems like depression and anxiety. And it sounds like you’re well on your way.

Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it.” In more contemporary terms, the ‘Psychological Bulletin’ asserts that envy is a ‘state in which the desired advantage enjoyed by another person or group of people causes a person to feel a painful blend of inferiority, hostility, and resentment.’

Research by Drs. Richard Smith and Sun Hee Kim from the University of Kentucky suggests that the strongest resentment is often directed toward a person or group to which one can most easily relate. It’s one thing to envy a celebrity or a billionaire, but it’s quite another to envy someone more like yourself — maybe that ‘perfect parent’ who seems to do a better job with their kids than you do, or that co-worker who seems to generate more sales.

Just because envy and jealousy are widespread and fairly natural feelings, it doesn’t mean that they’re healthy. Clinical psychologist Natalie Reiss, Ph.D., writes, ‘Envy can be a destructive emotion both mentally and physically. Envious people tend to feel hostile, resentful, angry and irritable. Such individuals are also less likely to feel grateful about their positive traits and their circumstances. Envy is also related to depression, anxiety, the development of prejudice, and personal unhappiness.’

Jealousy and envy make no rational sense. If someone accomplishes something you can’t, why be bothered by it? How does thinking about someone else’s superiority (real or alleged) change your own (real or alleged) inferiority? The fact that you can’t do something says nothing about what you can do. Most weaknesses suggest a corresponding strength. People who are bad at sales may be good at researching or teaching. People who are weak on empathy and compassion are often strong on decisiveness and technical tasks. Somebody who might be bad at changing a tire may be expert at programming the TiVo. People often compensate for their weaknesses by developing strengths. If you identify a weakness in yourself, odds are that there’s a strength lurking behind it.

Admiration is an antidote to envy. Joe’s accomplishment or Suzie’s triumph could be inspirational. Isn’t it better to feel inspired than to wallow in resentment? The fact that Joe did something well doesn’t mean that you can’t ever do it.

The negative thinking brought about by jealousy and envy is a form of depression. Dr. Reiss writes, ‘Not surprisingly, these negative mental states can impact physical health. Envious people can feel stressed and overwhelmed ‘ [and can be] unpleasant to be around. As a result, envious people have fewer friends overall, as well as fewer friends who will help out in times of need. Worse, when an envious person receives help, she or he tends to feel resentful that assistance was necessary in the first place.’

Envy breeds loneliness. The resentful frown generated by jealousy is a turn-off to potential friends and partners. People pick up on this emotion and it becomes a common reason for social isolation and lack of friends. It’s a vicious cycle.

One cause of envious feelings is the ‘zero sum’ attitude; the false belief that someone else’s gain is, by definition, your loss. Or that someone else’s strength is, by definition, your weakness. This is illogical and destructive. Happiness, strength and productivity are not finite. There’s plenty to go around! People who buy into the ‘zero sum’ idea get in their own way far more often than they are victims of others. They genuinely believe that their failings are everybody else’s fault.

Envious people feel that they’ll never have what they want. They believe they will never be strong, capable or content. It’s no wonder they start to hate others for being happy! It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s all so unnecessary. If I had the power to wish away one — just one — faulty aspect of human nature, it would be envy and jealousy. Nothing contributes more to mental illness and general human destruction.

Life is not, by nature, a competition. By being objective about yourself, you can find your strong points and develop them, while still welcoming everyone else’s strengths. If you start to unfavorably compare yourself to others, Stop! Focus on what YOU want to do and are able to do. If this sounds like a ‘feel-good’ clich it’s not. In the words of entrepreneur Ron Popeil, ‘It really, really works!’