“Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Or so said Othello in Shakespeare’s play by the same name. (Some believe this was the origin of our expression “green with envy.”) Although we use envy and jealousy interchangeably, linguists note a nuanced difference between the two words. Jealousy is thought to involve a fear of losing something or someone, whereas envy is simply wanting what someone else has.
Both envy and jealousy are uncomfortable emotions. Almost everyone has experienced these disturbing emotions to varying degrees, loathe as we may be to admit this. Sometimes we cover up our envy by diminishing those who have what we want. We may call them gauche, entitled, spoiled, or just lucky.
Jealousy Gone Awry
Of course, jealousy can go terrible wrong. We’ve heard or read about out-of-control jealousy or malicious envy that resulted in criminal behaviors such as theft or murder. No wonder envy is one of the seven deadly sins in Roman Catholicism. Sin notwithstanding, most of us know that envy is the cause of much misery.
Feeling jealous of strangers is one thing; feeling jealous (or envious) of friends is quite another. In her bestselling book, Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst addresses the disquieting feeling of envy toward one’s friends. She calls this “the curse of ambivalence.” We wish our dear friends well and cheer them on, but when they fail, we’re not nearly as upset as we claim.
Looking for “Likes” in All the Wrong Places
Social media has amped up opportunities to feel envious as we view friends’ posts and pictures of their spectacular lives. Although intellectually we may realize these photos and posts are heavily curated to show only the best moments, few of us can resist feeling even a wee bit envious of our globe-trotting friends or those just seeming to have a hilarious time doing whatever they’re doing. So common is this envious response, that a special acronym was borne: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
Envy is so insidious that it creeps up in the least likely moments. Reading a newspaper article about a woman who has created a successful company, I looked for a reason to discount her achievements. Sure enough, she went to an ivy-league school! To me, this translated into opportunities I didn’t have. If you’ve ever been hyper-critical of someone’s accomplishments or taste in clothes or home furnishings, chances are there’s a touch of envy coloring your perceptions.
The Flipside of the Dark Side
In his NY Times article titled “The Upside of Envy”, Gordon Marino draws a comforting conclusion about envy. We can learn a lot about ourselves – our secret hopes and unclaimed desires—by paying attention to those we disparage for chasing their dreams. Could our cynicism be envy? By honestly evaluating how we react to others’ triumphs, we can shine a light on what we want for ourselves. Envy, then, can be a gateway to clarifying one’s values.
So, the next time I’m green with you-know-what, I plan to take note of what is currently missing from my life. Perhaps these uncomfortable feelings can provide grist for the self-improvement mill.