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Is Envy All That Bad?

Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. (It is) a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others. (Envy) aims, at least in terms of one’s wishes, at destroying others’ good fortune. (Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals)

Globally, humans seem to view envy synonymously with unholy death and destruction.

In the Book of Genesis, the first murder committed was borne out of Cain's envy of his brother Abel. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana's jealousy toward his cousins the Pandavas drives him to wage war against them. In the Book of Wisdom, "death entered the universe only through the devil’s envy."

And as a teenage girl in the middle of suburbia, I, too, had my round with the instigator of death.

I was desperately jealous of a friend. I used to rant to my best friends about how eaten up I was over how much more intelligent and hardworking she was than me and talk about my plans to be her -- no, to be better than her, even as I knew that I was too lazy, stupid, and untalented to even touch her.

This envy can best be encapsulated in the following text I received from one of my friends about this friend. It resonated with me so absolutely I wrote it into my diary, reading it over and over again and feeling the same strings break in my heart over and over again.

Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. describes envy in Old Money as "the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one's heart were sucking on air." This description never felt adequate for me. My envy was the only thing in control of my life at the time. Every day when I woke up, it seethed just under the surface of my skin; it kept my heart hammering fast and heated my blood, and when this friend would do even mildly irritating things, my thin skin would rip and my envy came rushing out. It hurt and I bled, and my diaries are filled with pages and pages about how I wished this feeling would just go away.

Apparently, I didn't just make these feelings up. The New York Times reported a study in 2009 that found when people felt envious, "brain regions involved in registering the physical pain were aroused: the higher subjects rated their envy, the more vigorously flared the pain nodes in the brain's dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and related areas."

What was weird about my whole jealousy, however, is that even though I had known my best friends for years and was very comfortable talking with them about a whole range of subjects from periods to insecurities, I would only send my friends texts secretly in the dead of the night, when not even the other was awake. This shame can also be seen in the same study above: when participants were asked about their envy, they stated that "I’m privately ashamed of myself." This could be due to the fact that envy is a maladaptive emotion and is seen as a socially undesirable trait. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, envy is almost always dismissed as irredeemable in the abundance philosophical literature defending emotions' rationality and importance -- even authors who are inclusive of jealousy insist that envy is a lost cause.

Ironically, envy tends to increase the closer the person envied is to us, according to psychologist Abraham Tesser and his colleagues. This can account for why I didn't feel resentful toward people who had achieved even more than the girl I was jealous of -- because she was closer to me, she was an easier target for my insecurities to latch onto.

Hence, my envy practically handed me the brick and mortar to set up the psychological barrier halting my once closely treasured relationship with my friend. I cut off all relations with this friend and instead focused on me, trying to move on from the intense emotions attached to this one person.

As psychology professor Richard H. Smith said to the New York Times: “Envy is corrosive and ugly, and it can ruin your life."

After one agonizing year of obsessing over this girl and breaking up with her, we eventually became friends again, and even surprisingly became closer for it. And, bored one night, I returned to the (unfortunately) extensive diaries I had kept during this period.

(My friend) is very jealous of her. After all, she is hardworking and bright and smart and seems like she has a bright future. How can I push myself to have a brighter one?

As I scrolled through the document, I noticed that this became a strong trend in my thinking: I would spew angsty thoughts about this person, and immediately follow it up by asking myself, "so? what are you going to do about it?"

Despite its many drawbacks, envy is thought to contribute to the achievement of higher standards. A 2011 study discovered that envy doesn't necessarily always lead to its more negative effects; if channeled appropriately, it could actually serve as a motivator, accelerating productivity to achieve higher and higher goals. Bertrand Russel once said, "If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed." While I am definitely not nor was ever envious of Napoleon, the principle still holds -- when you're envious, you're essentially chasing perfection, and in that process you can achieve new heights that nobody else has ever reached before.

So yeah, being envious was a shitty ordeal. But honestly? In the end, being green with envy didn't turn out to be all bad.


Steph Kang is a former Voices editor and staff writer for the Granite Bay Gazette as well as a semi-regular blogger at steph-kang.com. She is also the proud founder and editor-in-chief of Unfurled Mag and writes weekly for Femme and Fortune.

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