Hidden Brain, my favourite podcast, tackled envy in an episode entitled Feeding the Green Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly. The feature was rich with social research and life examples that it prompted me to reflect about it in my own life.
Glossy Lifestyle and Real Life
I used to salivate over table settings and food photos in Family Circle and Working Women. They had glorious spreads of Holiday dinners -Thanksgiving turkey plated among finely curated autumn décor of pumpkins, branches, and acorns.
They also featured houses with island kitchens and stainless steel appliances. There were grand bedrooms with fluffy pillows and floral sheets of the highest thread count.
I read Filipino style magazines like Metro, Mega and Preview. Women with svelte figures in designer dresses graced these publications and served as life pegs for my young self. They were always the boss of something (a marketing head, VP for Operations, company founder, etc.) or they were heiresses determined to carve their own path. I envied and looked up to them.
Aside from millionaire mansions and socialites, there are many times when envy hits close to home. When I hear of my peers’ achievements, there’s that worry that I’m being left behind. I also wish I had many of my friends’ talents, skills and endearing personalities.
Envy among peers is usually more painful and shameful to admit. That’s because comparison is so much easier when it’s between people with similar backgrounds.
That is the purpose of envy, it’s a tool for social comparison. It cues you in to your relative position among your friends, colleagues and peers.
-Shankar Vedantham, Hidden Brain
I can close a magazine and set it aside. But with social media, it’s right at my fingertips. I can compare myself with all sorts of people from the one farthest from me to the person most like me.
YouTube and Instagram are more accessible than magazines. Being a teenager must be extra hard these days. How does a young person keep up with all these places to go, persons to be, goals to achieve?
As an adult, it’s still easy to get stuck in that terrible feeling when you don’t have an enviable career or a closet full of designer goods.
Being engaged in excessive social comparison decreases one’s happiness. It’s not that you think that others are happier than you are but you need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again. And this social comparison engagement makes you unhappy.
-Dr. Ohad Barzilay, Hidden Brain
The podcast distinguished envy into benign and malicious. Benign envy can be good. It pushes us to reach for more and creates the drive to achieve something. If a co-worker gets promoted or a friend reaches a milestone, sometimes it gives us the boost to act. Unchecked malicious envy however can take a turn for the worse. It can even lead to crime.
I think it’s safe to say that my wanting a flat stomach and a prestigious profession fall under benign envy. Also falling in love with magnificent houses and envying people who live in them shows my appreciation of craftsmanship and good design. Ahem!
No one wants to admit they’re envious because it confirms inferiority in some dimension.
-Mina Cikara, Harvard Psychology Professor
While envy and schadenfreude are generally frowned upon, the Hidden Brain mentions that society accepts it in some arenas: politics, celebrity gossip and sports.
I sometimes indulge in checking celebrity news and I wrote about schadenfreude on the misfortune of wealthy people before. Those aren’t so embarassing to admit.
Acceptable or not, envy can become unhealthy and unproductive when you’ve soaked in it long enough.
So what can we do?
Lucky for us, the documentary ended on a positive note:
Jessica brought her ugly festering envy into the light of day. She exposed it fully, talked about what she had been feeling. And that simple act, admitting to something we’ve all been taught to keep locked up inside, allowed her to triumph over this terrible emotion…
Perhaps there is a lesson to Jessica’s story, the first step to fighting envy is to admit we have it.
Aside from this act of admission, I’ve also learned ways to deal with feelings of envy and social comparison.
I remind myself that people are going through their own struggles. What I see is only part of who they are. I ask myself these questions:
What makes that aspect of someone’s life so enviable? What good does it bring? Is it something I need and is there something productive I can do about it?
I find this approach helpful though I’m not always this “enlightened”. It takes consistent practice to turn that ugly feeling into energy for better things… like, writing or baking banana bread!
How do you make the green-eyed monster work for the better?