How envious of others are you?
That’s a question that will get you a dirty look, at best, and maybe even more than you bargained for!
Because envy is a characteristic that we’ve relegated to “the dark side” of human nature.
After all, two of the original Old Testament Ten Commandments say so:
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
The Hebrew word chamad (חמד) is commonly translated into English as “covet,” “lust,” or “strong desire.”
Thou shalt not envy things that belong to others.
Later, Christian tradition told us that to do so is to commit one of the “seven deadly sins,” putting envy on the list of the worst of human failings, along with lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and pride.
Okay, but what is envy? Our ancestors spent a good deal of time thinking about it and pinning down its origins and consequences. Aristotle says:
“Envy is pain at the good fortune of others.”
Envy: a desire to have a quality, object, or attribute belonging to someone else. Wanting something someone else has.
That is, I envy both things you have and how you are; your possessions and your ways of being. I envy your success, its sources and its consequences. I sometimes want what you have, be it material or immaterial.
Aristotle says this is especially true if you and I are roughly equals, or peers. Rivals.
“The newly rich cause more pain than do those of long-established or inherited wealth.”
Am I envious of Jeff Bezos’ yacht? Not at all. But I am a teeny bit green-eyed when I see my neighbor drive up in her new Tesla!
What’s the difference? Bezos’ yacht is not something a person in my circumstances could desire even in his wildest dreams. But that new Tesla…
Fundamentally, I am envious when someone has some object or quality that I do not have and that I want.
As we grow up, we find ourselves being envious of different objects and characteristics that others possess. I once envied/wanted the shiny new bike my friend had. Or those great new sneakers. Or that suave way of just hanging out and looking cool. Now, not so much the sneakers, but I’d still like to have a bit more of that certain je ne sais quoi…
But is envy really so bad? Am I constantly committing this deadly sin?
Maybe there are degrees of envy, with some that don’t quite qualify for such serious spiritual consequences. What would that mean?
First off, envy stokes desire: “I see that. I want that.” Desire is an engine of ambition. Ambition is a motive for action, a drive to achieve. That means that envy is one source of our striving for individual and collective improvement. Not to mention foundational for our economy. Is that worthy of damnation?
We are, after all, social beings. Starting in infancy, we imitate those who are most important to us. That means we learn what to want from seeing what those around us have and how they behave. It’s no surprise that people in different cultures at different times want different things as indicators of their accomplishments.
Somehow, seeing my strong desire for the next iPhone as a function of my envy of the status of the most technologically savvy people in my ecosystem is a little less acceptable than seeing it as a result of my long-standing identity as a tech early adopter. But truth be told, being an “early adopter” is just another way of saying that I emulate the behavior of others I admire. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that my desire to covet the latest techno-gadget is my grown-up version of wanting that shiny new bike that the cool kids have!
Deadly sin label aside, for most of us, this kind of envy is relatively harmless. Most of the time, we are unaware that the things we find most attractive are a function of our desire to imitate what we see in others. We learn to manage our envy without letting it overwhelm us, putting the things that we envy the most on our “someday” list. This is so typical of us that the Dutch came up with a word for this feeling: benijden or “benign envy.”
But this “green-eyed monster” is not always so easily tamed. Sometimes it can grow into obsession. In the film Amadeus, Antonio Salieri’s character is so overwhelmingly envious of Mozart’s seemingly effortless compositional talent that he plots to kill the young genius, driving himself to the brink of suicide. This cautionary tale is an example of what the Dutch called afgunst, or “malicious envy.”
It’s interesting to look at your favorite things using envy as a lens. As in the case of my strong new-iPhone-desire, we’ll often find that our attachment to our favorite sweater, sofa, or soft drink has its roots in desire to imitate characteristics of others who are connected with the thing. Just a bit of harmless, benign envy. We want to “be like Mike,” to have his amazing abilities and charismatic persona by drinking the same beverage he does. We secretly hope that by making a connection though this object that we, too, could soar. We believe in magic.
Of course, that belief is neither conscious nor rational.
But it is an example of just how many of our decisions aren’t.
Never underestimate the power of envy… in others or yourself.
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.
Illustration by François-Marie Balanant from Wikimedia Commons.