Morality Series: Envy


“Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not achieve peace.” ~ Buddha

Let’s say that you and your close friend try out or compete for the same thing. It could be making the team, getting either a promotion or an award, or winning the lottery. You learn that your friend makes the team, got the promotion, or won the prize. You did not. How do you feel?

First, if you are an adult, you’re happy for your friend. If you’re a teenager (or you need to read The Untethered Soul), you may get out the voodoo doll and some pins, or begin some plot against your former friend.

envy-4We may begin to feel something else. It’s an emotion that we don’t want to feel, but it’s there. It’s a twinge we feel on the inside that is directly related to our disappointment and that other person. We feel envy. We do! It’s normal, and it’s okay as long as we don’t act-out on that negative emotion. I’ve never received recognition or a promotion (that others also wanted) without someone letting me know of their displeasure.

One time, I asked this guy, “Did you want me to turn it down so you can have it? I know you think you deserved or wanted it more than I did. Don’t you feel just a little petty right now?” I have been on the losing end enough times to recognize his emotion. Myself and I have had talks about that. I don’t like feeling envious. It makes me feel worse. Envy is not unusual. I often admit to the feeling.

So, if this is normal, why is it considered another breach of all that is good and holy within us? The reason is simple: this is not a good thing about our human nature. We know that envy is normal, and that it will pass, but it’s also dangerous. Loving friendships have ended. Businesses have suffered. Shame and embarrassment have been coopted by envy because the accompanying behavior make us feel worse. Envy is part of us, a dark corner of who and what we are. We must acknowledge that part of our dark side.

There is a shallow envy that is part of daily life. When I see men of my age with huge locks of thick, beautiful hair (usually gray), I feel mild envy. I admit it. I want what they have. That guy did nothing to deserve to have more than his share of hair follicles so late in life. I did nothing to promote my loss of the same. I’m almost proud of my envy. It’s true. I own up to it. I get it: envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation.

In Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas said, “Envy, according to the aspect of its object is contrary to charity, whence the soul derives its spiritual life… Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it.” Why do we do this? Because other people are so much luckier, smarter, more attractive, and better than we are. Lucky bastards.

envy-2But there’s good news. If you go to Hell, your punishment awaits: you’ll be put in freezing water. I looked it up. Think about that. Hell, fire and all that; and you and I are hanging out at the ice bar. Now, it’s their turn to be envious, right?

I don’t know why, but envy is associated with the dog and the color green. Oh, right, the green-eyed monster. Not so fast. I use envy and jealousy as two different words that apply to different kinds of situations.

Envy and jealousy are not the same emotions. Envy, as unpleasant as it can be, usually doesn’t contain a sense of betrayal and outrage. Jealousy needn’t contain a sense of inferiority. The difference is in the numbers.

Envy is a two-person situation, jealousy is a three-person situation. Envy is a reaction to lacking something. Jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something or someone. Of course, when we feel jealous, we often feel envious as well.


The opposite of envy is supposed to be charity. I think the more accurate word is love. Some experts say kindness. I say love, not because love will prevent envy, but because our love will help us overcome that part of our dark, selfish selves and we’ll find peace and happiness sooner. Love is the primary emotion. Envy and jealousy are both subordinate to fear, which is also primary. Both fall under the heading of wasted time and emotions since neither accomplish anything.

But, as long we are normal humans, we must deal with our feelings and emotions. It’s all about how we feel. The actions we choose to follow our emotions are up to us. Can we at least balance some light with our dark side?

Envy is real and normal. So is jealousy.
We generally see them as bad, weakness of the spirit, and damaging to life and our relationships. Consider both to be among life’s gaps.
Mind those gaps and look both ways. We need to see our own human darkness and weaknesses and deal with them.

11 thoughts on “Morality Series: Envy

  1. I think envy is one of the driving forces of our economy. Somebody else has something that we want, and so we work hard to get it too. As long as we focus on achieving for ourselves instead of depriving the other person of what they have, it can be a very positive thing.

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  2. Jealousy is rare for me, and it makes me tremendously uncomfortable. I cannot stand to feel jealousy, oh the agony! When my child wants to stay away from me longer, when my husband thinks so-and-so is so funny, when my mother flatters my friends — OH I HATE IT. Terrible.
    Envy is slightly more comfortable, but I don’t feel it too often, either. Pretty restricted to people who are healthy all the time and say as much, people who can eat whatever they want and stay in their pants, and people who are good at things I am not good at, particularly when they’re being paid. Heh. But I rationalize we must all be envious now and again, and it doesn’t feel quite so ugly as jealousy.

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  3. I’m familiar with the green-eyed monster, and I don’t like her. I don’t suffer as much from envy because over the years I’ve come to realize that everyone has their struggle, regardless of how bright and shiny their Facebook feed appears. I think both jealousy and envy come from a place of fear and a sense of lack, or loss. We all experience these “deadly sins” as part of our human experience and hopefully we learn and grow as a result. If you don’t want to suffer you have to accept these feelings and then let them go.

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  4. I really liked this post. It made me think a bit about envy and jealousy. I’ve had these thoughts and internal dialogues, but not for some years. Jealousy was a child’s trait for me. I grew out of it when I became an adult. Envy is uncomfortable, and it still exists. I don’t suppress the emotion, but I do try to ask myself about it. For instance, I have a friend who used to look up to me. She used to be scared of the woods and I took her back-country camping. We’d been doing it for years and becoming wild women together. Recently, she applied and was accepted to lead a group in an organization. Now, she summits mountains, camps in the snow and goes beyond what I have ever done. My first impulse is to be extremely proud and even grateful for my own role as her mentor. My underlying feeling is envy. The funny thing is that I could do those things too, nothing stops me but time and my own priority list. So funny. Anyway, thanks for yet another good post.

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  5. Jealousy is one of those emotions that reduces us, no matter the age, to something quite dreadful. It seems to come from different directions, as well as for varying reasons: whatever you want the most, suddenly is unattainable, and you have a choice of letting that want chew you up inside or simply get over yourself.
    I had one taste of it a very long time ago, gave in to it for about ten minutes, and never visited that place again. It was a dreadful feeling, and even 50 years later I recall it with stunning clarity.

    Envy is gentler, but it can take over your entire life, if you let it. No matter what you have, or know, there is always someone who is one up on you, just as you are always one up on someone else. Once you realize that, envy does take a back seat.


    1. I disagree with you on both counts, judy. I don’t think we choose these emotions, they choose us. If you can avoid your natural emotions, good for you. I also said that envy is different, but I don’t see it as “gentler” at all. Most of all, none of these emotions “reduce” us. But the behavior we choose may.

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  6. Fair enough. They choose us, true.

    But some people, for whatever reason, seem to be destructively jealous of everyone that they perceive as being better than they are, or having something they don’t have. The choice comes, as you say, in our own behavior toward it.
    And yeah, it does reduce us in a way, because there is no room in us at that point for anything but hurt and insecurity and sadness.
    You can refuse to give in to it, and each time you do, it does get easier to deal with.

    Jealousy especially, has no positive spin on it, as envy can, at least economically. (I like that, I had never thought of envy as part of an economic process before) Properly channeled, envy can inspire us to improve our skills as a builder, welder, writer, whatever. I don’t see jealousy doing that at all.

    “Gentler”, in the sense that it is usually internal and ongoing, like an itch you can’t scratch easily.

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