Is envy healthy?… Everyone experiences it at some point in their lives, and yet it still has a very bad reputation. In fact, it may be one of the most frowned upon and misunderstood emotions. Few are willing to admit that they are envious and no one wants to be labeled envious.
For this reason, envy often follows parallel paths. By denying it, there is a displacement towards underhanded violence, which is why it is usually expressed through passive-aggressive behaviors and, on many occasions, it is intended to whitewash this feeling by alluding to the existence of a healthy envy and an unhealthy one.
Why do we reject envy?
First of all, it is important to understand that envy is not a defect or a cardinal sin as we have been led to believe for centuries, but a universal emotion that arises spontaneously in certain situations.
The word envy comes from the Latin invidere, which means to look above, to look badly, or as the philologist Igor Sibaldi suggests, to look through the eyes of the others – the last is the most most probable translation.
Desiring, therefore, more or less intensely, something that the others have and that we believe we should have because we have been used to competing and comparing ourselves to others since childhood.
As a result of this lack, we usually experience an affective state in which anger is mixed with bitterness, resentment and frustration. We feel intense pain generated by the comparison between what we perceive and what we have. That feeling is what we call envy.
Obviously, it is not a pleasant feeling because it usually generates a feeling of inferiority. Envy makes us assume the successes, achievements, and qualities of the others as a personal failure or a sign of our inability and/or uselessness. It puts its finger on the sore, highlighting what we lack. In a certain way, it is a reminder of our frustrated desires and aspirations, of all that we have not achieved and we are missing.
These feelings are not only particularly difficult to manage because they leave our ego battered, but they also generate anger, jealousy, destructive impulses and desire for revenge as a way of calming that anguish and resentment for what we do not have or cannot achieve. For this reason, envy has historically been rejected and we have learned that it is bad to feel it and, even worse, to express it. Therefore, if we experience it, we try to hide it or minimize its existence, qualifying it as “healthy envy”.
What is healthy envy exactly?
Many times we refer to healthy envy when we want to “whiten” what we are feeling or are not willing to fully acknowledge it. It is rare for a person to publicly acknowledge that he is envious of what another has achieved. And when he does, he is forced to add that it is “healthy envy.”
In fact, the concept of healthy envy is quite similar to that of white lies, since it starts from the internal recognition that we are acting badly but we need a justification to calm our conscience. By telling ourselves that “We are lying, but for a good cause” or that “We feel envy, but a healthy one”, we avoid the emotional tension that cognitive dissonance generates. These notes serve to wash our conscience before ourselves.
So what exactly does “healthy envy” mean? Normally it indicates that this envy does not generate rivalry or feelings of destruction, anger or damage. The term is used to indicate that, while one desires the other’s qualities, properties, or gifts, there is no feeling of sadness or the desire to take it away from him– literally or metaphorically. That is, envy does not generate a negative feeling towards the envied person.
Theoretically, healthy envy is not accompanied by malice and resentment towards the other person, although it is doubtful that it is totally positive, since it always involves unpleasant feelings and sensations caused by what we consider to be a lack or, worse still, an unfair “cosmic” distribution of wealth and dowries.
Healthy envy doesn’t exist – or does it?
No feeling is good or bad by definition. It is true that they can be more or less useful for our purposes or the situation in which they have been generated, but they always contain a message that reveals what is happening inside us.
If we assume that envy is a feeling, then we can understand that it really is not good or bad. There are no reasons to differentiate it. Emotions and feelings should not pass through the moral sieve since they are simply internal signals, compasses that tell us that we like or dislike something, that we should continue on that path or that we would do better to change course.
Thinking that there is a healthy envy and an unhealthy one can make us feel good about our conscience, but it will not help us better cope with that feeling. Envy is not a bad feeling, but an unpleasant one. The disquisition may seem small, but it is important because it means that it is not necessary to avoid envy like the plague, but only to accept and try to understand it, as we do with sadness or anger.
And like the rest of the feelings, it is convenient to ask ourselves why it has arisen and what message it is trying to convey to us. This way we will prevent it from becoming harmful to ourselves.
In reality, envy does not speak of the gifts or possessions of the other – although it may seem so – but of our lacks, desires and unsatisfied needs. If we feel fulfilled in our work, if we maintain a satisfying relationship, if we feel comfortable in our home or love our lifestyle, it is quite difficult for us to feel envy, simply because we do not feel the need to compare ourselves with the others. We do not feel the need to look at the life of the other and, if we do, we do not feel disadvantaged.
Therefore, envy is a kind of alarm indicator that tells us that we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our life. We should not ignore, hide or underestimate it by qualifying it as “healthy envy”. Instead, we should try to understand what it is trying to tell us.
If we envy something, we should ask ourselves: Why is it important for me to have that? What do I want it for? Why didn’t I get it already? It is likely that it’s not really as important as it seemed at first, that we have not worked hard enough to achieve it or that we have to make some change in our life to better align it with our goals.
In general, envy is only harmful when we put the others above us, when we focus so much on what they have or what they are, that we are unable to resolve our lack or unsatisfied desires. Envy becomes a problem when it keeps us looking outside, instead of looking inside ourselves. Then it becomes entrenched and can give rise to what is commonly known as insane envy.
In that case, envy increases its intensity and becomes destructive. It makes us feel anxious about the success, happiness or prosperity of the others, because we feel that we cannot have what we so long for. As a result, our life can become a real hell.
Normally that happens when we do not pay attention to the first warnings of envy, we do not take action on the matter and it continues to grow under the shadow of resentment. So, as a study carried out at the Vienna University of Economics pointed out, envy affects our mental balance, hinders our growth and curtails our potential.
The best way to deal with envy, when it appears, is to listen to it. To avoid falling into its traps, we simply have to focus on what we really want and on the person we want to become, avoiding uselessly comparing ourselves with the others. It’s a change in perspective that’s worth it.
Mujcic, R. & Oswald, A. J. (2018) Is envy harmful to a society’s psychological health and wellbeing? A longitudinal study of 18,000 adults. Soc Sci Med; 198: 103-111.
Ramachandran, V. & Jalal, B. (2017) The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Front. Psychol.; 8: 10.3389.