The Nature of Envy

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Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. is a licensed Psychologist in the state of Ohio (License #6083). She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from ...Read More

I was one of the many people who tuned into the Golden Globe awards ceremony the other day. I am embarrassed to admit that I did feel some pangs of envy as I watched the glamorous celebrities pose for the cameras on their walk down the red carpet. I will also confess that I periodically feel envious of those "perfect parents" who appear to have their children and lives completely under control. Why do I experience these feelings? What exactly is envy?

Dr. Richard Smith and Dr. Sun Hee Kim, from the University of Kentucky, recently published a comprehensive article describing the nature of envy as well as the negative effects it can have on our mental and physical health. Historically considered one of the seven deadly sins (and appearing in two of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament), 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.” (Psychological Bulletin, 2007). As medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it."


Dr. Smith and Dr. Kim’s research suggests that my reaction to those “perfect parents” is the more common type of envy, when the person who has the desired advantage is relatively similar to you. In addition, envy is more likely when the domain of comparison is important to you. Parenting is an important role to me, so I am more likely to be envious of someone who seems to parent well than someone who excels at downhill skiing (not important to me).

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.

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Not surprisingly, these negative mental states can impact physical health. Envious people can feel stressed and overwhelmed. In addition, most people don’t want to hang out with an envious person because they are 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.

Since envy is an unhealthy emotion, how can you prevent it from occurring? The first step is to recognize and label these feelings as envious. This may be harder than it sounds. Because envy is considered a socially unacceptable emotion, many of us deny having these feelings both publicly and privately.

Dr. Smith and Dr. Kim suggest that once you have recognized and labeled envy feelings, you can try to dismantle them with a variety of cognitive therapy techniques and strategies, including:

  1. Self-Reliance and Perseverance. To "perseverate" is to repeat an action over and over. In this instance, the term is used to suggest that you repeatedly examine your thoughts to determine whether they are envious. If you find that they are envious at any given moment, remind yourself of how these thoughts don’t help your life and can actually harm it. The more you can manage to catch and correct your thinking, the easier it will be to remain envy-free.
  2. Selective Ignoring and Distraction. When you find yourself thinking envious thoughts, quickly remind yourself that the other person’s advantage isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, and then focus on other thoughts (a pleasant memory, things that need to be done, etc) or engage in another activity. By distracting yourself with another absorbing thought or activity, you can stop your envious thoughts in their tracks.
  3. Self-Bolstering involves reminding yourself of your own positive qualities and advantages. This strategy doesn’t seem to reduce envy itself, but can make you feel less angry and depressed in the face of your envy.

If these strategies don’t work for you, or envious emotions seem to be significantly decreasing your quality of life or impacting your daily functioning, it’s important to seek help from a trained mental health therapist.

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