“Of the seven deadly sins,” wrote Joseph Epstein, “Only envy is no fun at all.” Growing up I was always envious of the taller girls—which, in my case, was about every girl. At a staggering 5’1 (and three quarters), I’m pint-sized compared to most people. Later, in my early teens, when my family came apart at the seams, I was envious of those who seemed to come from happy families. Today, envy most often strikes in relation to my career as a writer or a professor.
Envy strikes. Like lightening, it happens quickly. The bodily experience of envy is a piercing in the heart, a bright flash in the mind. When researchers asked people to describe where in their body they experienced envy, they indicated the head and the heart. Thomas Aquinas described envy as “sorrow over another’s good.” While jealousy describes a person’s desire to keep what is rightfully theirs (such as a spouse, or God, for his people), envy is a desire for what another person has. We’re envious of another person’s house, their spouse, their kids, their car, their career success, their fame, their cash. We want another’s good for our own. There’s another side to envy, too: we feel pleasure at the pain and the sorrow of others, a reaction known as “Schadenfreude.” When researchers measured the electrical activity of cheek muscles, they discovered that envious persons smiled more when someone they envy experiences sorrow.
Social media, particularly Facebook, provides a fertile environment in which envy thrives. On social media, we present edited versions of our lives. We post about the good things—the wins, the celebrations, the exotic vacations, the perfect Instagram family moments—but we fail to present the negatives as often as we present the positives. Part of this is the American tendency to not burden others with our issues. (For example, when someone asks how we are, we give a cursory, “fine” or “great” regardless of how we actually feel. Some cultures think this dishonest and/or shallow. I think we just don’t want to burden others.) Part of it is that we really don’t want others to know how lame our life is compared tho theirs—or to the life they project.
If you’re feeling envy, as every red-blooded human will, here’s what you do to conquer it:
- Consider what envy is telling you. Envy is rooted in a dissatisfaction of self. When you feel envy, take note of who it is you envy and why. If I say, for example, I feel envy related to my career as a writer, that tells me I’m not fully satisfied with where my career is at that point in time. When you understand what the envy is about, you can start making changes in that area. Are you envious of another’s marriage? What does that say about your marriage? What do you need to change in your marriage? Envious of another’s career? What can you do to advance your own?
- Make a plan and follow through. In Proverbs 14:30, we read, “A tranquil mind gives health to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Envy literally eats away at our health and energy like a cancer. Once you’ve discovered the source of dissatisfaction, make a plan to change it and follow through on that plan. Rather than expending your energy in envy, you’re expending it to make things better in a given area of your life.
- Congratulate others and mean it. In Romans 12:15, the Apostle Paul urges us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.” Don’t let envy keep you from truly rejoicing with those who are rejoicing or from celebrating how God is working through their life. Celebrate. Congratulate. Pray for others the good you wish for yourself.
- Practice gratitude. Take some time every day to consider the ways God has blessed you. Envy tends to blind us from the good God has bestowed upon us. Practicing gratitude and regularly giving thanks to the Lord for his goodness in our lives inoculates us against the destructive power of envy.
- Run. There are situations that are better to avoid altogether or at least place limits on. Researchers found that happiness increases if a person is sharing on social media, but decreases if they are passively scrolling through tweets and status updates. If you spend a great deal of time scrolling through, stop it. Minimize your time on social media and don’t start your day with it. Starting your day passively scrolling through the newsfeed will siphon off to envy the energy you need to conquer your daily tasks.
It’s important to realize you’re not alone. At some point, all of us feel inadequate. All of us suffer from envy. Experiencing envy doesn’t make you evil. By learning from it rather than indulging in it, you can use it to find deep satisfaction. How have you handled envy? What has worked, what doesn’t?