Psychology of envy: 5 keys to understanding it

“I wish I had it too”, “I should have”, “Why didn’t he / she and me?” These and other similar phrases have been thought and expressed by a large number of people throughout their lives.

They all have one thing in common: they express the desire to have something that does not belong to yourself or to others.. In other words, all of these expressions refer to envy. What follows is a brief analysis of the meaning of craving, as well as what some research reflects on it.

Define envy

When we talk about envy we’re talking about a feeling of pain and frustration due to not owning a desired good, characteristic, relationship or event that we would like to have that another person possesses, viewing this situation as unfair.

Thus, we can consider that for the appearance of envy, there are three basic conditions, the first must be someone other than the individual who has a good, characteristic or specific realization, the second that this phenomenon, characteristic or possession is the object of desire for the individual and finally, the third condition is that a feeling of discomfort, frustration or pain appears before the comparison between the two subjects.

The feeling of envy arises from another feeling, that of inferiority, in the face of the comparison between subjects. In general, feelings of envy are directed towards people who are at relatively similar levels and strata to their own, as individuals far removed from their own characteristics usually do not elicit the feeling of inequality that can be caused by being overwhelmed. person with similar circumstances. .

Considered one of the seven deadly sins by various religious denominations, this feeling assumes a concentration on the characteristics of others, ignoring the own qualities. It is a barrier to building a healthy relationship, undermining interpersonal relationships, as well as maintaining positive self-esteem.

1. Different types of envy

However, it is necessary to ask whether envy occurs in the same way in all people, a question that apparently has a negative answer.

This is due to what is called healthy envy. This term refers to a type of envy focused on the envied item, without harming the person who possesses it. On the contrary, pure envy assumes the belief that we deserve the object of desire more than the one to whom we envy, being able to produce joy before the failure of this one.

2. Disadvantages to be taken into account

Envy has traditionally been conceptualized as a negative element, due to the deep discomfort it causes as well as the hostile relationship it provokes towards others, which is linked to low self-esteem and the fact that it comes from the “ feeling of inferiority and iniquity. Likewise, According to many studies, envy can be at the origin of the existence and the creation of prejudices.

Likewise, envy towards others can lead to defensive reactions in the form of irony, mockery, heteroagression (i.e. aggression directed against other people, whether physical or psychological) and narcissism. It is common for the urge to turn into resentment, and if it is a prolonged situation over time, it can induce the existence of depressive disorders. It can also induce feelings of guilt in people who are aware of their urge (which correlates with the desire for the urge to go wrong), as well as anxiety and stress.

3. Evolutionary sense of envy

However, although all of these considerations have a scientific basis, envy can also be used in a positive way.

Envy seems to have an evolutionary meaning: this feeling has led to competition for the search for resources and the generation of new strategies and tools, essential elements for survival since the beginnings of mankind.

Likewise, in this sense envy makes a situation that we consider unfair can motivate us to try to achieve a situation of fairness in areas such as employment (for example, this can lead to struggles to reduce wage gaps, avoid favoritism or establish clear promotion criteria).

4. Neurobiology of envy

Thinking about envy can lead to questioning, And what happens to our brain when we envy someone?

This reflection has led to several experiments. So, in this sense, a series of experiments conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences of Japan indicated that when faced with the feeling of envy, several areas involved in the perception of physical pain are activated in the brain. . Likewise, when volunteers were asked to imagine that the envied subject was failing, dopamine was released into brain areas of the ventral striatum, activating the brain reward mechanism. In addition, the results show that the intensity of the perceived envy is correlated with the pleasure obtained by the failure of the envy.

5. Jealousy and envy: fundamental differences

It is relatively common, especially when the object of desire is a relationship with someone, that envy and jealousy are used indiscriminately to refer to the feeling of frustration caused by not taking advantage of that personal relationship.

The reason envy and jealousy are often confused is that they usually occur together.. That is, jealousy is given to people who consider themselves more attractive or qualities than oneself, with which one envies the supposed rival. However, these are two concepts which, although related, do not refer to it.

The main difference is that if envy arises towards an attribute or item that is not possessed, jealousy arises when the loss of an item that has been relied on is feared ( usually personal relationships). Also, another difference can be found in the fact that envy occurs between two people (envious and envious subject) in relation to an element, in the case of jealousy a triadic relationship is established (jealous person, person by relation to which they were jealous and third person who could snatch the second). The third difference would be found in the fact that jealousy comes with a feeling of betrayal, while in the case of envy it usually does not happen.

Bibliographical references:

  • Burton, N. (2015). Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of Emotions. United Kingdom: Acheron Press.
  • Klein, M. (1957). Envy and gratitude. Buenos Aires. Paidos.
  • Parrott, WG (1991). Emotional experiences of envy and jealousy, The psychology of jealousy and envy. Ed. P. Salovey. New York: Guilford.
  • Parrot, WG and Smith, RH (1993). Distinguish between experiences of envy and jealousy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64.
  • Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Schoeck, H. (1966). Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, Glenny and Ross, New York: Harcourt, Brace
  • Smith, RH (ed.) (2008). Desire: theory and research. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Takahashi, H .; Kato, M .; Mastuura, M .; Mobbs, D .; Suhara, T. and Okubo, Y. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and Schadenfreude. Science, 323; 5916; 937-939.
  • Van de Ven, N .; Highland, CE; Smith, RH; van Dijk, WW; Breugelmans, SM; Zeelenberg, M. (2015). When envy leads to friction. Cogn.Emot .; 29 (6); 1007-1025
  • West, M. (2010). Desire and difference. The Society for Analytical Psychology.

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