Envy: the fuel of resolutions (but it's not always a bad thing!)

It’s that time of year where we start thinking about the ways we can make our lives better (aka, time for RESOLUTION EXTRAVAGANZA). Sadly, many of our resolutions come out of a process that includes a whopping dose of envy. We see someone enjoying something good (whether a trait or an object) and we think, “Man, I really want that and I am kind of peeved or sad I don’t have it. Why does she get it and I don’t?”

So going into the new year, and in general as we find ourselves longing to set new goals and achieve something new, I think it’s worth thinking through the situations in which we experience envy and understanding what that emotion means for us in each instance.

Dr. Sarah Protasi has an interesting analysis of envy that I think is worth considering for 2020. She says envy comes in four forms — Inert, Spiteful, Emulative, and Aggressive — and says one form of envy can actually be beneficial (so don’t close down your Instagram just yet!).

But do block this betch. (Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels.)

Protasi says there are two distinctions defining each kind of envy: the focus of the envy (i.e., whether the focus of envy is on the thing desired or the person envied), and the attainability of the good (i.e., whether or not we have a chance at attaining that thing for ourselves). How potentially harmful and vicious an instance of envy is depends on where it registers along those two lines.

Figure from Protasi “Varieties of Envy” from Philosophical Psychology 2016.

Looking at this graph, I can see how each experience of envy, if nurtured, or even just allowed, without balance, ironically impacts the overall goal of our resolutions: our eudaimonia (Aristotle’s term for human flourishing or well-being). Inert Envy could easily lead to hopelessness or depression. Spiteful Envy can easily lead to resentment. Aggressive Envy can easily lead to entitlement or actual aggression. Emulative Envy seems to be the outlier in terms of outcome, as I could see how it could easily lead to hope or a commitment to work towards new goods. (SIDE NOTE: Ultimately, it seems like we could replace the concept of Emulative Envy with something like admiration, and avoid the negative valence that comes along with the general framework of envy — a negative valence Protasi acknowledges and seeks to retain. But perhaps we need that little painful twinge to motivate us to work towards the good we see in others.)

Unfortunately, confronting our envy does not come easily or naturally. Protasi says research has shown that we tend to avoid talking about the emotion of envy. It seems to be an emotion we feel ashamed of, or feel very vulnerable admitting.

Envy is the emotional vice that shall not be named.

Envy is difficult to talk about, in part, because it lays bare the very things we find valuable in others and feel like we lack in ourselves. Envy identifies something we think is good, and admits “I don’t have that good. That good is not part of me, not part of my life.” Envy sees others with that good as ultimately “better,” or “more valuable” in some way than we see ourselves to be. Confessing envy is thus confessing to feeling inferior, and, perhaps even more importantly, reveals a deep fear about our worth as individuals in a world of many diversely-good individuals. (Or our fear about ever finding true, lasting happiness. Ouch.)

And maybe that is the best reason of all to start admitting our envy, in all its forms. It helps us get to the core of some of our deepest insecurities, and it helps us identify the goods that we hope to have in life — the goods we are always seeking even if not strategically (or even consciously). Acknowledging our envy will help us navigate our insecurities and help us start to find the more deeply real things in them, about ourselves and about the world around us.

When we think about a particular instance of envy in our emotional lives, we can begin to see whether or not the good we desire is possible for us. If it is, then we can work that into our overall life goals. If it isn’t, then we can see what desire we were hoping that good would fulfill and find other ways to get that good in our lives.

If the envy is about a person, then we can take that opportunity to look deeper. What about that person makes her enviable? Why does she have that good thing we envy? Is it through fortunate circumstances or struggle, through nature or through nurture? Is it something I could attain for myself, but in a way that honors my selfhood, my unique life, my actual opportunities (whether or not I realize what those opportunities are!), and my authenticity? If not, why am I focused on it?

And ultimately, we can ask ourselves: why do I desire that thing, that good? Do I think it would make me more worthwhile as a human being, more loveable, more valuable? Or do I think it would improve my overall well-being (my authenticity and my relationship with myself) and the health of my relationships with others, therefore being truly, deeply worth pursuing?

I think the more we examine the instances of envy we feel, and really work through the underlying beliefs and assumptions embedded in envy, the more we may find envy dissolving. We will start to replace some of the false beliefs of envy (“I would be more loveable with that trait.” “My life would be perfect if I had that.”) with truer beliefs (“I am not perfect, but I am loveable the way I am, and I can always work to become a better person.” “It would be nice to have that thing, but things do not make people happy forever.”) Martha Nussbaum would approve.

Most importantly, though, acknowledging envy helps us recognize and refine our priorities as envy lays bare what we actually value — instead of what we say we value. Is being smarter the be-all-end-all of me living a good life? Absolutely not. Does not having kids right now mean I’ll never have kids and will be sad forever? Absolutely not. But now that I see better two instances of how my envy manifests (don’t worry, there are many more), I see what I value and the truth value of those beliefs. Now I can move into 2020 with a better sense of what I should actually work on to make my life fuller and richer, to be a better, more loving, more compassionate, more clear-eyed person. Envy can be very useful, even as we hope to move past it.

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