“The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build,” said Margaret Thatcher once. Envy, one of the ugliest among the seven deadly sins, is something that’s no stranger to many of us. Sometimes, it’s even thought to be a completely normal part of human nature.
But how does envy actually work? Scientists and psychologists have tried to nail down the answer for ages. New research published in Psychological Science uncovers one fascinating part of it, showing how people tend to be more envious about future events rather than about the past.
According to the findings, envy seems to work similarly to other emotions when it comes to time. Emotions tend to be heightened about future events – for example, you might feel happy and hopeful about a coming vacation. After the event has passed, those emotions might lose their strength, at least in comparison to the previous heightened state. Envy seems to work the same.
In the study, participants described their feelings in various hypothetical scenarios both days and weeks before and after those events. Though the scenarios were identical in their nature, the timing made a huge difference in how envious the participants felt: the future was more enviable than the past.
To put that result to work in real life, the researchers also explored how the participants felt about their peer’s Valentine’s Day date throughout the month of February. The result was the same: envy grew as the Valentine’s Day approached but after 15th of February it started declining.
Interestingly, the researchers found that while the malicious envy declined until losing its power completely, the motivational envy didn’t fade. Envy can be a great inspirational tool and as this study suggests, negative emotions might fade but the empowering ones will remain.
The research shares some new insights into how we interact with others and how our emotions empower us. “More than 500 million people interact daily on social media such as Facebook, where they disproportionately encounter other people’s best moments, promoting fear of missing out and undermining viewers’ well-being,” said the researchers, hinting how the study can help to interact with social media and understand the difference between benign and malicious envy.
As one of the study’s authors psychological scientist Ed O’Brien noted: “There is something of a paradox in our reactions to people who get to have what we want: It stings less if they already have it.”
Why do we feel envy
Envy is one of the most complex emotions, especially because it’s often misunderstood. Feeling envious doesn’t mean you’re an evil person – it’s a completely natural reaction that stems from a variety of reasons.
In its essence, envy is an interesting emotion because it’s always related to comparison – you are comparing yourself to someone else and feeling lower in some aspect. Because of that comparison point, envy might force you to work harder or improve yourself in some aspect so you would be equal, hence eliminating the source of envy.
So what’s the actual purpose of envy? It’s actually simple: survival. Envy has always been present and, in a way, has been partially responsible for humans evolving. Though, of course, things are not that black and white, envy has a role to play as it makes you push yourself further.
Contrary to many other emotions, envy is kept as a secret because we usually don’t want others to be aware of our envious thoughts – it’s an “ugly” emotion that is usually related to negative harmful thoughts and actions. While envy might be a great motivator, it might also inflict serious harm – an envious person might consider doing something to “downgrade” the other person or they might have self-doubts and thus, their confidence is decreasing.
Envy can mostly occur when your self-esteem is harmed in some way. Social comparison is almost like a default setting in people – it’s our natural reaction to constantly compare ourselves to others.
If your sense of self is strong and you have a realistic understanding of your capabilities and your characteristics, envy isn’t that easy to occur since, even if you compare yourself to others, you understand realistically how you measure up. Or you might not even tend to compare yourself to others, realizing that your self-worth comes from within, not from others.
Another part of envy’s formula is idealization. We tend to idealize other people or ourselves, but when we can’t live up to those ideals or if we see others filling those ideals, we might feel envious, thinking “why can’t we have that”.
Lack of self-esteem connected to envy
Largely though, this idealization is related to your self-esteem. When your ideals don’t get fulfilled, your self-esteem hurts. However, when you set realistic goals to yourself and evaluate your abilities and your general self realistically, your self-esteem will be unshakable.
So how to stop feeling envious? How to stop thinking “how come she has it all and I don’t have it”? There’s one simple rule to keep in mind: focus on yourself and your value. If you’re feeling envious, it means that your self-esteem might be lower than usual or there’s something in your inner self that feels incomplete.
Focus on yourself, not others – essentially, stop comparing yourself and put the attention on yourself. Being self-centered is not a bad thing in this case. In fact, it can combat with envy. And even if you do feel envious, think about the reasons behind the envy – turn it positive and motivational, instead of letting it poison you.