Your co-worker gets the promotion that you applied for. You congratulate him while seething inside.
Your friend goes on a fantastic vacation and shares pics of it on Instagram. You usually “like” his stuff, but this time you don’t.
Your wife’s parents watch your sister-in-law’s children for the weekend. You’re ticked that they never do that for your kids.
A business competitor enjoys a string of successes. You start thinking about all the things you don’t like about him and why the way he does business is stupid.
You’ve likely experienced the above scenarios or something like them.
You see someone get something that you don’t have, and you feel angry and resentful.
There’s a word for that feeling: envy.
The Emotion No One Likes to Talk About
Despite it being a common emotion, people don’t like to talk about envy.
People rarely admit that they are envious of someone else. They might say they admire someone for their success, but you never hear someone say, “I’m really upset and angry at that person because they have something that I don’t!” Because that would make them seem petty and small, and further lower their already diminished feeling of status.
Not only do regular people not like to talk about envy, but scholarly types don’t like to talk about it either.
For one thing, there is a real dearth of books written about envy by psychologists. Which is weird because it creates all kinds of emotional and interpersonal problems. I could only find two books on Amazon about the psychology of envy. One takes on envy from a Freudian/psychoanalytic perspective, and the other takes a more empirical/scientific approach to the subject. That latter book, while rigorous and insightful, was published in 1991. That’s thirty years ago. That’s a long time. It was also mostly about jealousy, which is related to envy but isn’t the same thing (more on that below).
Sociologists and philosophers have written about envy a little more, but even then, the extant books and treatises from that field of study are still quite old. Sociologist Helmut Schoeck published Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour back in the 1960s. Alexis de Tocqueville (a proto-sociologist/political scientist) wrote about envy in Democracy in America, but that was published nearly 200 years back.
Philosophers Nietzsche and Kierkegaard wrote a lot about envy and its role in human life, as did Kant and Bacon. Aristotle devoted a great deal to the emotion of envy in his book Rhetoric. In fact, the definition of envy that he laid out over 2000 years ago is the definition that philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists still use today (when they do talk about envy, at least). But all those guys have been long dead for centuries. There hasn’t been too much chatter about envy from philosophers since.
So people don’t like to talk about envy — their own or others.
While we don’t like to talk about envy, understanding it can help us navigate many social conflicts. Many of the ill feelings we experience towards others have a strain of envy underlying them. Kierkegaard said that “anyone who wishes to understand the nature of offense should make a study of human envy.” I know that as I’ve read more about envy, I’ve been made more aware of it in my own life and have taken steps to quell the green-eyed monster within.
What Is Envy?
Since we don’t talk much about envy, our definition of it is varied and muddled. If you were to ask ten different people to define envy, you’d probably get ten vaguely similar and yet still distinct answers.
So let’s get Socratic here and clearly define envy.
As I said above, Aristotle laid out a pretty clear definition of envy in Rhetoric. It’s a definition that subsequent philosophers and psychologists have used and built off of as well.
According to Aristotle, “envy is pain at the good fortune of others.”
And for Aristotle, envy isn’t just pain at the good fortune of others; we also experience envy when we feel pleasure in the misfortune of others. The Germans have a word for that manifestation of envy: schadenfreude.
So envy is pain experienced at the good fortune of others or pleasure at the misfortune of others.
Whom Do We Envy?
If you look at your