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To Envy is Human

Envious Eyes

Envy lies in the eye of the beholder (Illustration courtesy of Aravind Iyer)

Once while taking a walk after lunch, a friend of mine declared dramatically that he was going to stop using LinkedIn, the professional networking service. Upon enquiring further, he sighed and explained. He was just so tired of seeing his friends and acquaintances seemingly scale ever greater heights in their careers that it made him reflect on his job and career continually, and maybe even needlessly. He was happy. He wanted to remain happy. Now finally he had figured out how to put an end to his worries! While not all of us may be able to relate our experiences with as much candor and humor as my friend, I am sure few can deny having been afflicted with envy at some point or another in their lives. But what is envy and why is it such an inevitable affliction?

I remember one time during my childhood when I felt the unpleasant and yet irrepressible feeling of envy. I must have been about eleven when I was at a friend’s place. His house was brimming with relatives as they had planned some sort of an extended family outing. When I learned that my friend and his cousins who were roughly my age were to travel in a rented bus, carrying only family, and were planning to sing songs all along the way, stop at roadside eateries to sample locally cooked delicacies, and finally end up at a waterfall or beach or whatever, I felt as though I was going to fall through the floor. Not having yet learned something pat to say like “Ooh, I am so jealous of you!”, I could only manage to gulp and gawk. The funny thing is I must have pulled such a long face that I wound up getting invited to that picnic! As I walked back home that evening, I struggled to explain to myself this sickening combination of pain, pleasure and shame that I was feeling. Looking back now, it was probably pain at feeling my friend had it better, pleasure at getting invited, but shame at letting my feelings show.

I entered college, having experienced my fair share of envy in school. But it was in college that I learned how envy seemed to be closely related with fair play. I am sure everyone remembers how certain students were relentless at maximising self-interest, in what they thought was a zero-sum system, including putting others down to get ahead. For example, it was doing homework ahead of time and then engaging in time-killing activities with those who hadn’t even started. Or it was not informing someone of the exact syllabus for the upcoming quiz since they missed that class. There were only a few who would accept or at least not deny their own practice of such self-serving behaviour, but for the majority it was a shocking and insulting thing to be accused of practising. This was because it was just not considered sporting or fair conduct. Quite pertinently, accusing someone of being self-serving was also an effective outlet for your envy of their successes — always satisfying to think “they must have done something to gain an unfair advantage!”

In the professional world, envy is quite a taboo subject. Childhood envy may be accepted and even looked upon kindly (sometimes, getting you invited to a friend’s family picnic). Envy in college may be easier to discuss, at least under the guise of collectively dissing a successful peer. Unfortunately, for professionals, envy has not even been granted the pride of place in the corporate vocabulary. In an ideal world, one may think that professionals would be encouraged to admit to feelings of envy so that they can be get it off their chest and focus on their own goals and growth. But in reality, professionals are expected to only show the most cheerful appreciation for the achievements of other individuals. Shorn of channels to tackle or even admit their envy, professionals have perfected the fine art of delivering left handed compliments with a straight face. Few can deny at least having thought if not uttered these remarks. You know, “Congratulations on that promotion, but your family will be seeing even less of you now!”, or “It’s so awesome that you are heading that new department! Your old reports must be so happy. For you.” The accusations in college sound benign in comparison.

When it comes to our social worlds, ours is probably the golden era of envy. We constantly attempt to reinforce our standing on social media as people who are having the time of their lives. Possessed of a confident and self-assured persona, constantly traveling places, ever the rockstar at work, to say nothing of our wonderful family, we keep piling on evidence to that effect through our posts. Yet, when a friend posts with the merest hint of their success, we can’t help thinking “what a show off!” Also notable is our general reluctance to share a negative update about ourselves. People’s lives may be complicated but they are also filled with plenty of positive moments. With a bit of cherry picking, even unwittingly so, it is not hard to create a joyous and successful persona. All this makes it so much easier for people to feel envious about each other.

So why do we feel envious? Envy seems to be something that makes us fundamentally human. It is an extension of the animal impulse to protect one’s territory into a heightened sense of awareness of disparity in possessions, capabilities and status. And it’s not mere awareness, but brings with it an element of discomfort. In fact, what happens in an envious brain might help explain how envy makes us feel different emotions. When we feel envy, the brain shows activity in regions which also register physical pain. We feel relief or even pleasure when the disparity that causes envy is somehow negated or neutralised — a feeling which in its more extreme form is also referred to as schadenfreude. Finally, the shame we feel from envy supposedly tempers our drive to correct the disparity and prevents us from doing anything socially or morally unacceptable in an attempt to address the disparity. Envy is also linked to our notion of fairness. A disparity that appears fair or one that can be quickly rationalised as fair seldom triggers much envy in us. But what in our eyes is an unfair success or an undeserved reward, immediately kindles the feeling of envy.

Despite knowing the evolutionary perspective, envy is a difficult emotion to tackle, leave alone to master. We can agree, in a cool and collected frame of mind, that each one of us needs to celebrate our uniqueness and define our own personal yardstick. But there is always the nagging fear — what if we under-reach ourselves? We have to constantly look to others to calibrate our yardstick and then can’t help but feel envious upon encountering disparity. It may not be possible to be unstintingly sporting in your consideration and appreciation of the successes of another. But when caught by a pang of envy, it helps to define more specifically what we are envious of. Asking yourself — what exactly am I envious of — and defining the object of envy allows us to capture what we desire but in a way that is detached from its possessor. The key to tackling envy is to break the association between our desires and the individuals who have achieved those already. Sure, the promotion, the successful startup, the fancy car, the power or authority, the sporting or artistic achievements are desirable. But in what way are they meaningful to me, other than simply because he or she has them? If we can answer this question truthfully, we can trust that we will either get over it or adapt it into a goal that is meaningful for us.

In the end, while it may be a creepy feeling, it is hard to imagine life without envy. Envy enables us to reach higher than we might have attempted otherwise but also forces us to recognise our limitations and rationalise the perceived unfairness of life. So go ahead. Envy a little. But be sure to turn it into a positive drive for your life.