Brett Ryder/Heart Agency
Coming to terms with how we really feel about our friends’ good fortuneBy Joan Duncan Oliver At the gym, I idly thumb through a back issue of the Harvard Business Review. A headline, “Envy at Work,” catches my eye. I glance at paragraph one:
As you enter your recently promoted colleague’s office, you notice a photograph of his beautiful family in their new vacation home. He casually adjusts his custom suit and mentions his upcoming board meeting and speech in Davos. On one hand, you want to feel genuinely happy for him and celebrate his successes. On the other, you hope he falls into a crevasse in the Alps. Hello. You’re playing my song. Alas, I’ve been there more than once, my good Buddhist training battling—unsuccessfully—my envious heart.
Hello. You’re playing my song. Alas, I’ve been there more than once, my good Buddhist training battling—unsuccessfully—my envious heart.
And I’m not alone, right? Envy is “universal,” assert the authors of the HBR article, psychologist Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson, a management professor. And psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers for the most part agree: envy is a standard-issue human emotion, albeit the one we are least likely to admit to, even to ourselves.
With that in mind, I ask two young colleagues, “What do you think about envy?” Vigorous shaking of heads. “Nope, never feel it,” one declares. Nodding in agreement, the other says, “My mother always told us not to envy anyone. You don’t know their story—what the rest of their life is like, or what they’re feeling inside.”
She’s right, of course. Envy rests on comparing ourselves to others—and coming up short. Comparing per se isn’t the problem. It can be beneficial if it motivates us to take action on our own behalf—to start exercising or meditating, say, or to apply for a more challenging job. But invidious comparisons are deleterious all around.
In Buddhist teachings, envy isn’t clearly distinguished from jealousy. So I try another tack with my colleagues. “What about jealousy? Ever feel that?” I ask. “Of course!” one shoots back, laughing. “All the time!” And off we go on the fickleness of boyfriends.
Jealousy—fear of losing someone we value—is at least marginally justifiable and therefore socially acceptable. Envy—discontent or anger that someone else has something we want but don’t possess, be it beauty, talent, a coveted job, or just dumb luck—is neither justifiable nor condoned. La Rochefoucauld, that astute observer of human nature, defined the difference: “Jealousy is in some measure just and reasonable since it tends only to retain a good which belongs to us, whereas envy is a fury that cannot endure the good of others.”
However couched it might be, envy by its very nature is hostile. The word comes from the Latin invidere, to regard maliciously, to grudge. Unlike its cousin greed, envy doesn’t just crave the object of its desire, it taints the whole project, begrudging others what they have and, when all else fails, devaluing or destroying the desired object.
Psychologists, unlike Buddhists, distinguish between envy and jealousy. Jealousy is a triangulation among equals: I’m jealous of the glamorous new neighbor my boyfriend has been chatting up, afraid that she’s going to drive a wedge between us. Envy is an unequal misalliance of two, with the envied person one up, the envier one down. I envy the new hire for being younger, smarter, and more tech savvy than I. And if I’m convinced my job is in jeopardy as a result, then consciously or unconsciously, I might try to sabotage the upstart.
Nothing good attaches to envy, a sin in every major religion. Two German social psychologists who study envy say that “among the seven deadlies, it occupies a unique position: it’s the only sin that is never fun.” Even schadenfreude—wicked pleasure in someone else’s misfortune—is usually short-lived: soon enough, the bitter taste of hatred rises in your throat, and shame and guilt flood your system…