Skip to main content

People shop along Queen Street West in downtown Toronto on June 11, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Look around you. At every turn, you’ll find others who have fared better through this pandemic than you. There are people who quit soul-sucking jobs to pursue their passions. People who picked up the clarinet or learned to speak new languages while in isolation. People who renovated their homes or retreated to vacation properties. People who developed chiselled abs and granite glutes.

Do you find yourself feeling happy for them? Or is it more like, “How dare they?”

While some Canadians are entering this third COVID-19 summer happier, fitter and wealthier than ever, others are struggling with the loss of their loved ones, their health, homes and livelihoods. The inequities that have been exacerbated over the past two years have brought many face-to-face with the green-eyed monster. Yet even though societal norms may require us to hide our envy (after all, it is one of the seven deadly sins), psychologists who study social emotions say it is universal and adaptive.

Envy can be either helpful or harmful – both to oneself and others, they say. But not everybody agrees on how, and whether to rein it in.

In everyday language, envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably, but psychologists view the two as distinct. Jealousy typically involves relationships with a three-person dynamic, in which one person senses that another person for whom they have feelings has feelings for someone else, said Jessica Tracy, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia.

There’s evidence to suggest humans have evolved to feel jealous, since mate-poaching, or having someone lure away one’s sexual partner, is a threat to males’ and females’ reproductive success, Dr. Tracy said.

Envy, on the other hand, is when a person wants something someone else has. Research suggests there are two types: benign envy, which is when one looks up to another person and desires to attain what that other person has, and malignant envy, when one dislikes others for having what they want, and wish to bring them down to their level, Dr. Tracy said.

“Instead of trying to see them as sort of a model you want to emulate, you say, ‘No, I’m going to bring them down to me,’” she said.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s believed that envy helps people meet their needs for survival by focusing their attention on resources they lack, such as money, status or physical fitness, said Anna Behler, an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

The influence society has on how much individuals experience envy is unclear, Dr. Behler said. But she believes it contributes to what people envy, since it shapes what’s important and valuable. For example, in some circles, earning an executive promotion may spark envy, while in others, achieving inner peace is what’s envied.

It’s human nature for people to compare themselves against one another, which is what motivates them to compete, said Shadi Beshai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Regina. But constant comparison can also take a toll, particularly for those who are especially prone to doing so, Dr. Beshai said: “It can be quite draining and exhausting and taxing on one’s emotional health.”

People who have malicious envy, or high dispositional envy – that is, they have a higher capacity to feel envy and a higher tendency to engage in social comparisons – also tend to report higher levels of mental-health symptoms, including depression and anxiety disorders, and higher perceived stress, he said, though the relationship between them is complex.

In one longitudinal study, Dr. Beshai found participants with greater mental-health difficulties reported higher envy. But over the span of six months, he said, “their feelings of envy kind of took on a life of their own and started to fuel their depression and anxiety symptoms.”

It’s not known how this occurs exactly, but there is research that shows people with a lot of envy also have a lot of negative thoughts about themselves and the world – for example, that the world is unfair or that they don’t measure up, he said. All are thoughts that are pernicious when it comes to depression and anxiety.

Dr. Beshai believes that the pandemic may have created a situation that’s more conducive to envy, since, over the past two years, people have been forced to have fewer interactions with each other. Thus, they have less context about one another’s accomplishments and successes. You might not be aware, for instance, that your neighbour’s vegetable garden you covet is flourishing only because they needed to occupy themselves after losing their job. Or that an acquaintance’s perfect family Instagram photos belie a home filled with agony and tears.

Moreover, during the pandemic, many have been experiencing more stress, more depression and anxiety, and difficulty sleeping – all things that negatively affect emotional regulation, which would otherwise help keep envy in check, he said.

Dr. Beshai found it may be possible to temper people’s envy. Subjects who participated in a five-week program that focused on mindfulness and self-compassion reported lower dispositional envy than subjects who did not.

Meanwhile, Dr. Tracy said changing one’s perspective may also help reduce envy. Instead of focusing on how well someone else fared during the pandemic, for example, you could think of ways in which you’re better off than others.

Alternatively, she said, you could consider what you may have gained through hardship. For instance, rather than dwelling on how difficult it was to juggle parenting and work during school closures, think of how it may have strengthened family bonds. “I think we get a lot of meaning from things that are not easy and so maybe there’s a way to revisit it and think about it that way.”

Jens Lange, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hamburg, holds a different view. He argues that envy is part of who we are, and that it need not be managed or suppressed.

Envy is a functional emotion, one that is neither inherently morally good or bad, Dr. Lange said. People often want to know how they can turn their malicious envy to benign envy, mistaking one as being better than the other, he said. Yet both are painful emotions.

Even if benign envy motivates you to try to be better at something, you may not ultimately be successful, and your pain then remains, he said. Additionally, the ways in which you attempt to improve your situation may not be desirable for others. Dr. Lange explained benign envy is also linked to Machiavellianism, whereby people employ backstabbing or other unsavory means to achieve what they want, even if others suffer.

Meanwhile, malicious envy may be perceived as negative, but it’s often experienced toward people who have a dominant approach to obtaining status, such as using their physical abilities to force others to submit them, Dr. Lange said. Thus, knocking such a leader down to one’s level may, in fact, be beneficial to society.

“The general idea of getting rid of envy as something that needs to be deleted from the human psyche, that’s something I find unacceptable,” he said.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.