Psychology Of Envy: 5 Keys To Understand It

What is envy and what psychological problems can it lead to?

“I wish I had it too”, “I should have gotten it”, “Why he / she and I didn’t?” These and similar phrases have been thought and expressed by a large number of people throughout their lives.

All of them have one element in common: they express the desire to possess something that is not owned by oneself but by others. In other words, all these expressions refer to envy. Next we proceed to carry out a brief analysis of the meaning of envy, as well as what some research reflects on it.

Defining envy

When we speak of envy, we refer to a feeling of pain and frustration due to not having a good, characteristic, relationship or desired event that we would like to have and another person does, seeing this situation as unfair.

Thus, we can consider that for envy to appear, there are three basic conditions, the first being that there must be someone outside the individual who possesses a specific good, characteristic or achievement, the second that this phenomenon, characteristic or possession is object of desire for the individual and finally, the third condition is that a feeling of discomfort,  frustration or  pain appears when comparing the two subjects.

The feeling of envy arises from another feeling, that of inferiority, before the comparison between subjects. In general, feelings of envy are directed towards people who are in levels and strata relatively similar to their own, since individuals very far from their own characteristics do not usually arouse the feeling of inequality that someone with circumstances similar to those of oneself.

Considered one of the seven deadly sins by various religious confessions, this feeling supposes a focus on the characteristics of others, ignoring one’s own qualities. It is an obstacle to the establishment of a healthy relationship, undermining interpersonal relationships, as well as maintaining positive self-esteem.

1. Different types of envy

However, it is worth wondering if envy is the same in all people, a question that apparently has a negative answer.

This is due to what is known as  healthy envy. This term refers to a type of envy centered on the envied element, without thereby wishing the person who owns it any harm. On the contrary, pure envy supposes the belief that we are more deserving of the object of desire than the one we envy, being able to produce joy at its failure.

2. Disadvantages to consider

Envy has traditionally been conceptualized as a negative element, due to the deep discomfort that it provokes together with the relationship of hostility it entails towards other people, which is related to a lack of self-esteem and the fact that it comes from the feeling of inferiority and inequity. Likewise, according to numerous studies, envy may be behind the existence and creation of prejudices.

Likewise, envy of other people can cause defensive reactions to appear in the form of irony, mockery, hetero-aggressiveness (that is, aggressiveness directed at other people, whether physical or psychological) and narcissism. It is common for envy to turn into resentment, and if it is a prolonged situation in time it can induce the existence of  depressive disorders. In the same way, it can induce feelings of guilt in people who are aware of their envy (which correlates with the desire that the envied do badly), as well as  anxiety and stress.

3. Evolutionary sense of envy

However, despite the fact that all these considerations are scientifically based, envy can also be used in a positive way.

Envy seems to have an evolutionary meaning: this feeling has driven the competition for the search for resources and the generation of new strategies and tools, elements that have been essential for survival since the beginning of humanity.

Likewise, in this sense, envy makes a situation that we consider unfair, it can motivate us to try to reach a situation of equity in areas such as work (for example, it can lead to fighting to reduce salary differences, avoid favorable treatment or establish promotion criteria clear).

4. Neurobiology of envy

Reflecting on envy can lead to wondering, what happens in our brain when we envy someone?

This reflection has led to various experiments. Thus, in this sense, a series of experiments carried out by researchers from the National Institute of Radiological Sciences of Japan have indicated that when faced with the feeling of envy, various areas involved in the perception of physical pain are activated at the brain level . Similarly, when the volunteers were asked to imagine that the envied subject suffered a failure, the release of dopamine was triggered  in brain areas of the ventral striatum, activating the brain’s reward mechanism. In addition, the results show that the intensity of perceived envy correlated with the pleasure obtained by the failure of the envied.

5. Jealousy and envy: fundamental differences

It is relatively common, especially when the object of desire is a relationship with someone, that envy and jealousy are used interchangeably to refer to the feeling of frustration caused by not enjoying that personal relationship.

The reason that envy and jealousy are often confused is that they usually go together. That is, jealousy is towards people who are considered more attractive or qualities than oneself, thus envying the supposed rival. However, these are two concepts that, although related, do not refer to the same thing.

The main differentiation is that while envy occurs with respect to an attribute or element that is not possessed, jealousy occurs when the loss of an element that did exist (generally personal relationships) is feared. Likewise, another difference can be found in the fact that envy occurs between two people (envied and envious subject) regarding an element, in the case of jealousy a triadic relationship is established (person with jealousy, person regarding the that they are jealous and third person who could snatch the second). The third difference would be found in the fact that lattice comes together with a feeling of betrayal, while in the case of envy this does not usually happen.

Bibliographic references:

  • Burton, N. (2015). Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions. United Kingdom: Acheron Press.
  • Klein, M. (1957). Envy and gratitude. Buenos Aires. Paidos.
  • Parrott, WG (1991). The emotional experiences of envy and jealousy, The psychology of jealousy and envy. Ed. P. Salovey. New York: Guilford.
  • Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Schoeck, H. (1966). Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, Glenny and Ross (trans.), New York: Harcourt, Brace
  • Takahashi, H .; Kato, M .; Mastuura, M .; Mobbs, D .; Suhara, T. & Okubo, Y. (2009). When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude. Science, 323; 5916; 937-939.
  • Van de Ven, N .; Hoogland, CE; Smith, RH; van Dijk, WW; Breugelmans, SM; Zeelenberg, M. (2015). When envy leads to schadenfreude. Cogn.Emot .; 29 (6); 1007-1025
  • West, M. (2010). Envy and difference. The Society of Analytical Psychology.

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