How To Stop Being So Envious

Jan Buchczik

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

Eradicating this ugly emotion entirely would be impossible, but we can stop fueling it with our behavior. In the 13th canto of “Purgatorio” in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the 14th-century Italian poet describes the ultimate punishment of people who in life had fallen prey to envy, one of the seven deadly sins. He shows them perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Because envy started with what they saw, their eyes are wired shut.

To avoid falling, they must support themselves upon one another, something they never did in life. This is a pretty grim punishment—not surprising, perhaps, given that envy is the only sin that is forbidden by not just one of the Ten Commandments in the Catholic tradition, but two.

Perhaps you are less concerned than Dante with punishment in the hereafter. There is plenty of evidence that envy—the resentful longing for what someone else possesses—can give you a little bit of hell or purgatory in the here and now. We all know how envy feels—how it sours our love and desiccates our soul.

How it brings out the ugly, spiteful phantasms inside us that take pleasure in the suffering of others for no other reason than that their good fortune makes ours feel insufficient in comparison. As the essayist Joseph Epstein has written, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”

Envy, in short, is a happiness killer. Unfortunately, it is also completely natural, and no one escapes it entirely. But if you understand it better, you can stop fueling it and step back from that cliff’s edge. The possible explanations for the natural, evolutionary roots of envy are easy to imagine. Social comparison is how we gauge our relative place in society, and thus how we know what to strive for in order to stay competitive for resources and viable in mating markets.

When we see that we fall behind others, the pain we feel often spurs us to build ourselves up—or to tear others down. All of this could have been life-and-death in troglodyte times, but it feels largely anachronistic today. You are unlikely to die alone because your social-media posts are less popular than others’. But the pain can still be just as acute.

How people act in the face of this pain has led some scholars to distinguish between benign envy and malicious envy. The former is miserable, but is met with a desire for self-improvement and to emulate the envied person. In contrast, malicious envy leads to wholly destructive actions, such as hostile thoughts and behavior intended to harm the other person.

Benign envy occurs when you believe that admiration for the other person is deserved; malicious envy kicks in when you believe it isn’t. This is why you might envy a famous war hero but wish him no ill, while enjoying the news that a handsome Hollywood actor’s ninth marriage has just failed. Envy—especially when malicious—is terrible for you. To begin with, the pain is real: Neuroscientists find that envying other people stimulates the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with both physical and mental pain.

It can also wreck your future. Scholars writing in 2018 in the journal Social Science & Medicine studied 18,000 randomly selected individuals and found that their experience of envy was a powerful predictor of worse mental health and lower well-being in the future. Ordinarily, people become psychologically healthier as they age; envy can stunt this trend. Even though other studies have shown that benign envy might spur your ambition, this one did not find that envy predicted later economic success at all.

Different people envy different things. For example, I can see people with fancy boats and cars all day and be utterly unmoved. But show me a full head of hair on a man my age, and well, you might as well set me out on the cliff with my eyes wired shut. Scholars have noted some general patterns in envy, however. For example, some research suggests that what people envy tends to change with age.

Young people may be more envious than older folks of educational and social success, good looks, and romantic fortune. Older people generally shrug at these things, but tend to envy people with money. Men and women tend to envy different qualities. According to one pair of studies, men most envy social status and prestige. For women, it was physical attractiveness. For both genders, the second greatest source of envy was success in attracting romantic partners.

To feel envy, you need to have exposure to people who appear more fortunate than you. That is simple enough in ordinary interactions. But the conditions of envy explode if we expose people to a wide array of strangers curating their lives to look as glamorous, successful, and happy as possible. Obviously, I am describing social media.

In fact, academics have even used the term Facebook envy to capture the uniquely fertile circumstances that social media creates for this destructive emotion. And in experiments, scholars have shown that, indeed, passive Facebook use (although no doubt this is not limited to Facebook) measurably decreases well-being through increased envy.

If I could snap my fingers and eradicate envy from my life, I would, and I bet you would too. But envy is natural, and getting rid of it would be impossible for all but perhaps the most enlightened. Cosimo de’ Medici in the 15th century had a more workable approach. He compared envy to a virulent, naturally occurring weed. The job is not to try to eradicate it, which would be futile; rather, he taught, just don’t water it.

1. Focus on the ordinary parts of others’ lives.

The main way that we water that terrible weed is with our attention. We focus intently on the qualities we want but lack. For example, you might envy an entertainer’s fame and wealth, and imagine how those qualities would make your life so much easier and more fun. But think a little deeper. Do you really believe that entertainer’s life is so great? Is her money and fame bringing a healthy marriage? Does it eliminate her sadness and anger? Probably not; perhaps the contrary.

Psychologists have shown that you can use this observation to blunt your envy. In 2017, researchers asked a group to think of demographically similar people whom they considered to have exceptionally good circumstances in their lives. They found that focusing only on these circumstances led to painful contrast with participants’ own lives, and thus to envy. But when they were instructed to think about the everyday ups and downs that these people surely also experienced, envy was diminished.

2. Turn off the envy machine.

Social media increases envy because it does three things: It shows you the lives of people more fortunate than you; it is easier than ever for anyone to flaunt their good fortune to the masses; and it puts you in the same virtual community as people who are not in your real-life community, making you compare yourself with them. Celebrities’ and influencers’ posts are a particularly potent—and unnecessary—source of envy.

The solution is not to ditch social media; it is to unfollow people you don’t know and whose posts you simply look at because they have what you want. Use social media to keep up with real friends, learn interesting and empowering things, and maybe have a few laughs. There’s enough envy among friends—don’t expand it to the world’s population!

3. Show your unenviable self.

While you are working to curtail your envy of others, stop trying to be envied yourself. Wanting to display your strengths and hide your weaknesses from strangers is natural. This might feel good, but it is a mistake. Obscuring the truth to yourself and others is a path to anxiety and unhappiness.

And as my colleague Alison Wood Brooks and her collaborators showed in a 2019 study on entrepreneurs in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, when the participants were honest not just about what they did right but also about how they failed along the way, observers experienced less malicious envy. But be careful: Your failures have to be authentic. So-called humblebragging, in which a boast is disguised as humility, can be perceived a mile off and makes you less likable to others.

In 1807, the British poet Mary Lamb wrote a few stanzas on the misery of envy, in which she imagines a rose bush that cannot appreciate its own gifts because it frets about not bearing violets or lilies. She concludes, “Like such a blind and senseless tree / As I’ve imagined this to be, / All envious persons are: / With care and culture all may find / Some pretty flower in their own mind, / Some talent that is rare.”

This is probably the best antidote of all to envy: gratitude and appreciation for your own gifts, whatever they may be. Lots of research shows that gratitude extinguishes envy, but you already knew that. So put this knowledge to good use: Next time the hound of envy barks inside you, quiet it with thoughts of the people who love you, the things you enjoy, the good fortune you have had.

By: Arthur C. Brooks

Source: How to Stop Being So Envious – The Atlantic


Envy may negatively affect the closeness and satisfaction of relationships. Overcoming envy might be similar to dealing with other negative emotions (anger, resentment, etc.). Individuals experiencing anger often seek professional treatment (anger management) to help understand why they feel the way they do and how to cope. Subjects experiencing envy often have a skewed perception on how to achieve true happiness.

By helping people to change these perceptions, they will be more able to understand the real meaning of fortune and satisfaction with what they do have. According to Lazarus, “coping is an integral feature of the emotion process”. There are very few theories that emphasize the coping process for emotions as compared to the information available concerning the emotion itself.

There are numerous styles of coping, of which there has been a significant amount of research done; for example, avoidant versus approach. Coping with envy can be similar to coping with anger. The issue must be addressed cognitively in order to work through the emotion. According to the research done by Salovey and Rodin (1988), “more effective strategies for reducing initial envy appear to be stimulus-focused rather than self-focused”.

Salovey and Rodin (1988) also suggest “self-bolstering (e.g., “thinking about my good qualities”) may be an effective strategy for moderating these self-deprecating thoughts and muting negative affective reactions”. Further research needs to be done in order to better understand envy, as well as to help people cope with this emotion.

Russell believed that envy may be a driving force behind the movement of economies and must be endured to achieve the “keep up with the Joneses” system. He believed this is what helps to maintain “democracy” as a system in which no one can achieve more than anyone else. Attended to, envy may inform a person about who they admire and what they want. Benign envy may lead a person to work harder to achieve more success.

Children show evidence of envy at an early age. Adults can be just as envious; however, they tend to be better at concealing the emotion. Envy plays a significant role in the development of adolescents. Comparing oneself is a universal aspect of human nature. No matter the age or culture, social comparison happens all over the globe.

Comparison can range from physical attributes, material possessions, and intelligence. However, children are more likely to envy over material objects such as shoes, video games, high value mobile phones, etc. Children believe these material objects are correlated to their status.

Social status has been found to have a strong connection with self-esteem. An adolescent’s self-esteem is very fragile during early years and is heavily impacted by peer opinion. If a child is comfortable with who they are and self-confident they are less likely to become envious of others’ material objects, because they do not self-identify with materials. Material objects are not the only things that adolescents become envious over; however, it is the most prevalent.

As children get older they develop stronger non-materialistic envy such as romantic relationships, physical appearance, achievement, and popularity. Sometimes envious feelings are internalized in children, having a negative impact on their self-esteem. Envy comes from comparing; these comparisons can serve as a reminder that they have failed social norms and do not fit in with their peers. A feeling of inadequacy can arise and become destructive to a child’s happiness and cause further internal damage.

A child’s identity is formed during their early years. Identity development is considered the central task during adolescence. When children grow up understanding who they are, they are able to better define what their strengths and weaknesses are while comparing themselves to others.Comparison can have two outcomes: it can be healthy in aiding in self-improvement or it can be unhealthy and result in envy/jealousy which can develop into depression. This is why self-exploration and identity development are critical in adolescent years.

It is important to identify healthy and unhealthy envy in a child at an early age. If a child is showing signs of unhealthy envy, it is best to teach the child productive ways to handle these emotions. It is much easier to teach a child how to control their emotions while they are young rather than allowing them to develop a habit that is hard to break when they are older.

Related contents:

Parrott, W. G.; Smith, R. H. (1993). “Distinguishing the experiences of envy and jealousy”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 64 (6): 906–920. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.64.6.906. PMID 8326472.

Rhetoric By AristotleRussell, Bertrand (1930). The Conquest of Happiness. New York: H. Liverwright.van de Ven, Niels; Zeelenberg, Marcel; Pieters, Rik (2009). “Leveling up and down: The experiences of benign and malicious envy”. Emotion. 9 (3): 419–429. doi:10.1037/a0015669. ISSN 1931-1516. PMID 19485619.

Duffy, Michelle K.; Lee, KiYoung; Adair, Elizabeth A. (21 January 2021). “Workplace Envy”. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 8 (1): 19–44. doi:10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012420-055746. S2CID 241844176. Retrieved 13 September 2021.

Lange, Jens; Weidman, Aaron C.; Crusius, Jan (April 2018). “The painful duality of envy: Evidence for an integrative theory and a meta-analysis on the relation of envy and schadenfreude”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 114 (4): 572–598. doi:10.1037/pspi0000118. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 29376662. S2CID 4577422.

van de Ven N; et al. (2009). “Leveling up and down: the experiences of benign and malicious envy”. Emotion. 9 (3): 419–29. doi:10.1037/a0015669. PMID 19485619.“Why Envy Motivates Us”. 2011-05-31.

Lange, Jens; Crusius, Jan; Weidman, Aaron (2018). “The Painful Duality of Envy: Evidence for an Integrative Theory and a Meta-Analysis on the Relation of Envy and Schadenfreude”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 114 (4): 572–598. doi:10.1037/pspi0000118. PMID 29376662. S2CID 4577422.

van de Ven, Niels (2016). “Envy and Its Consequences: Why It Is Useful to Distinguish between Benign and Malicious Envy”. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 10 (6): 337–349. doi:10.1111/spc3.12253.Salerno, Anthony; Laran, Juliano; Janiszewski, Chris (2019-08-01). Dahl, Darren W; Price, Linda L; Lamberton, Cait (eds.). “The Bad Can Be Good: When Benign and Malicious Envy Motivate Goal Pursuit”. Journal of Consumer Research. 46 (2): 388–405. doi:10.1093/jcr/ucy077. ISSN 0093-5301.

Crusius, Jan; Gonzalez, Manuel F.; Lange, Jens; Cohen-Charash, Yochi (2021). “Envy: An Adversarial Review and Comparison of Two Competing Views”. Emotion Review. 12 (1): 3–21. doi:10.1177/1754073919873131. ISSN 1754-0739. S2CID 210355930.Fields, R (2011). “Eat Your Guts Out: Why Envy Hurts and Why It’s Good for Your Brain”.

Sznycer, Daniel; Lopez Seal, Maria Florencia; Sell, Aaron; Lim, Julian; Porat, Roni; Shalvi, Shaul; Halperin, Eran; Cosmides, Leda; Tooby, John (2017-08-01). “Support for redistribution is shaped by compassion, envy, and self-interest, but not a taste for fairness”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 114 (31): 8420–8425. doi:10.1073/pnas.1703801114. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 5547621. PMID 28716928.

Lazarus, R. S. (2006). “Emotions and Interpersonal Relationships: Toward a Person-Centered Conceptualization of Emotions and Coping”. Journal of Personality. 74 (1): 9–46. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00368.x. PMID 16451225.Salovey, P.; Rodin, J. (1988). “Coping with envy and jealousy”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 7: 15–33. doi:10.1521/jscp.1988.7.1.15.Russell (1930), pp. 90–91

Salerno, Anthony; Laran, Juliano; Janiszewski, Chris (2019-08-01). Dahl, Darren W; Price, Linda L; Lamberton, Cait (eds.). “The Bad Can Be Good: When Benign and Malicious Envy Motivate Goal Pursuit”. Journal of Consumer Research. 46 (2): 388–405. doi:10.1093/jcr/ucy077. ISSN 0093-5301.

festinger, Leon (May 1, 1954). “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes”. Human Relations. 7 (2): 117–140. doi:10.1177/001872675400700202. S2CID 18918768.Harter, Susan (2012). The Construction of the Self: Developmental and Sociocultural Foundations. Guilford Publishing.Erikson, Erik (1968). Identity Youth and Crisis. W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 9780393097863.

Steven M. (2006). The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-226-65306-“Mark 7.14-23 ESV – What Defiles a Person – And he called – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway. trieved 2016-03-23.“Luke 11.34-36 ESV – Your eye is the lamp of your body. When – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2016-03-23.

“Proverbs 17.5 ESV – Whoever mocks the poor insults his – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2016-03-23.“Proverbs14.30 ESV – A tranquil heart gives life to the – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2016-03-23.“Galatians 5.19-21 ESV, – Now the works of the flesh are evident: – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2016-03-23.Romans 1:28-29-32, Bible, English standard Version, 1971, Biblegateway

“Ecclesiastes 4.4 ESV – Then I saw that all toil and all skill – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.James 4.1-2-3“Psalm73.3 ESV – For I was envious of the arrogant when – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.“Genesis 26.12-16 ESV – And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.“Ezekiel31.1-9 ESV – Pharaoh to Be Slain – In the eleventh – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.

“1Samuel18.5-9 ESV – And David went out and was successful – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.“Genesis 30.1-2 ESV – When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.“Genesis 37.1-11 ESV – Joseph’s Dreams – Jacob lived in the – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.“Acts 7.9 ESV, – “And the patriarchs, jealous of – Bible Gateway”. Bible Gateway.

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