I would describe myself as a pretty decent person; I give to charity, I’m nice to animals and children and have even been known to collect my elderly neighbour’s prescription from the chemist to save her from venturing out in bad weather.
And yet there are times when I experience silent but ugly, palm-sweaty pangs of jealousy – and those closest to me aren’t immune from being the targets of my secret outbursts. You see, although I love my friends and family (and harbour general feelings of fondness towards my friends on social media), I sometimes feel flashes of envy at their good fortune. A Facebook post alerting me to the fact that someone I know has just scored an amazing job/ travelled to an exotic, far-flung destination/ bought a house tends to send me into a brief – but very real –panic, before I eventually settle upon the socially acceptable emotion of feeling happy for them. "OMG, congratulations!" I might comment, followed by a smattering of smiley-faced emoji to show that I really mean it – all the while the stony expression on my actual face suggests that the opposite is true.
While envy is, admittedly, an unattractive trait, I do feel slightly better knowing that I’m not entirely alone in experiencing it. “God yes,” my friend Aletha says when I quietly ask her if she’s ever scrolled through social media and found herself coming up short. “Even though I know that theoretically they all have their own crosses to bear, I still feel like on balance, my friends’ lives are just a whole lot better than mine.”
And it’s not just Aletha and me – according to a recent study, 29% of us are secretly jealous of a friend or family member, while 55% of us are envious of our best friend. Furthermore, there’s some pretty strong evidence to suggest that we can harness the positive power of envy instead of just trying to pretend we’re not feeling it in the first place. Here’s how.
Use envy to your advantage
It might feel like crap, but envy – which refers to wanting something someone else has, while jealousy has more to do with the fear of suffering a potential loss to a rival – can be a beneficial tool for those hoping to better themselves. For example, much like physical pain alerts us to the fact that something is harmful to our bodies, experiencing ‘negative’ social emotions like envy can be a strong indication that something important is lacking in our own lives.
“Experiencing envy is not a lot of fun, it feels pretty miserable to be alerted to the idea that someone is doing better than you, especially when it’s something that’s important to you,” says Sarah Hill, an evolutionary social psychologist at Texas Christian University. “But that’s alerting you to the fact that you’re being out-competed at something that’s important to you and that’s actually really important information to have.”
The clue lies in what you’re envious of; while I can cheerfully enjoy pregnancy updates or engagement announcements as the happy news they are, it’s the promotions, book deals or other evidence of professional advancement in my field that stop me in my tracks. “That’s really useful for you to know, because it can inspire you to do what’s necessary to get the same thing yourself,” Sarah tells me.
Your reaction to envy is everything
When we feel envy, a perceived gap appears between us and the person we’re envious of and the purpose of our reaction to envy is to close the gap by any means necessary. “On the whole, envy tends to promote behaviours that are aimed at minimising the gap between yourself and the advantaged person,” explains Sarah. “Sometimes that can be positive, such as improving your own position, and sometimes it’s negative things, where you try to do things to detract from the other person's advantage.”
So while it’s possible to use envy as the proverbial kick you need to achieve your own goal, be it to travel more or save up for a deposit on a flat, it also has the potential to inspire some pretty poor behaviour – and zero good can come from that. “None of us are perfect and in our least refined moments sometimes we might find ourselves doing or saying things to try to minimise somebody else’s successes,” acknowledges Sarah, who advises us to instead make note of the emotion and move on. “Say ‘OK, this is a useful social emotion that I’m having and it’s useful for me to make note of the fact that I’m not doing as well as I think I should be doing',” she says. “But rather than feeling badly about this other person – which is part of knee-jerk impulse – we can put ourselves into a position of power by recognising it and turning it into something useful instead of something destructive.”
Relax, there’s enough success to go around
When something positive happens to a friend, it’s not a poor reflection on you, says psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, who notes that constantly comparing ourselves to others and finding that we don’t measure up comes down to issues of conditional self-worth. “People with conditional self-worth are constantly scanning the environment” – oh hey, Facebook – “to determine how they will feel about themselves,” continues Dr. Lombardo, the author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “They operate from a place of ‘win-lose’ where ‘If I win (am better), then you lose and if you win (look better in whatever capacity), then I lose’.”
We need to change this win-lose mentality to a win-win one, she advises. “So when your friend gets a promotion or goes on an amazing vacation, it doesn’t make you a ‘loser’. Instead, adopt a spirit of empathy for your loved ones.” So although your friend’s pregnancy announcement might sting if you’re currently struggling to conceive, or their promotion highlights the fact that you’re stuck in a career rut, don’t assume they haven’t endured their own series of setbacks before getting to this point.
Experiencing envy doesn’t make you a bad person
Depending on your reaction to it, it’s important to acknowledge that experiencing envy doesn’t necessarily make you an asshole, so cut yourself some slack.
“It's incredibly common – perhaps more so than many of us will admit – to feel envious of our friends,” explains Annie Wright, a psychotherapist from San Francisco, noting that envy, like any other feeling, is a normal and natural emotion that can be triggered by those we know as well as those we don’t. What’s more, it’s perfectly possible to love and want the best for someone and still feel envious of something they have. “We are complex emotional beings capable of holding multiple feeling states for ourselves and those around us,” continues Annie. “We can dearly love our friends and wish them well, and we can still feel jealousy over parts of their lives. And that’s OK.”