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Jealousy and Envy: A Human Condition Worth Shifting

Occasionally a distinct feeling overcomes me. The feeling is ugly and unwelcome. Today it occurs as we’re driving up one of my favourite streets in Carlton. I’m in the passenger seat looking up at all the marvellous two-story terraces with red doors and wide tiled verandas. And while I know the feeling is unproductive, I can’t help but let it swallow me. The wheels of the car continue to move us out of Carlton and into another suburb and I am left touched by a combination of awe, resignation, and sadness. I recognise this combination of feelings, triggered by something in my environment, is the evil working of envy.

Or is it jealousy?

I’ve never really understood the definitive difference between the two; in the same way I’ve never known the difference between affect and effect, not even now. I try and locate an instance when envy or jealousy made me feel good or made me behave in a way I am proud of. Nothing becomes of this. All I recall are moments in which I have perceived another woman as a threat (way back in the depths of an unhealthy relationship) and feeling winded from someone’s news of their wonderful success. Jealousy and envy are also very fragrant in the moments I’ve spent scrolling on social media; moments when I start to resent the way my body is reflected in the mirror.

Nobody is immune to the burden of jealousy and envy

In the past few weeks, I have made it my business to get to know these feelings. I have sought to comprehend them and recognise exactly what brings them on in hope that I can experience them less.  It is true to say, no age group or social class is immune to jealousy or envy; they are very primate, powerful human emotions that can overwhelm even the best of us. If we picture the five core emotions of the human: fear; happiness; anger; shame; sadness, we can think of jealousy and envy as a combination of these emotions. Jealousy and envy do not have their own separate sensations in the body to these primary emotions, they are simply very nuanced versions of the big 5. It is also important to understand that envy and jealousy are not external forces that permeate us like wind or rain, instead they are a product of our own private thought patterns. Therefore, while it might not always feel like it, we can shift the experience of jealousy and envy.

So, what’s the difference, really?

To break it down: jealousy is when you fear someone is going to take away something you already have. It is concerned with what one already has and the idea of losing it. Jealousy is therefore a nuanced form of fear and anger. Envy, on the other hand, is when you desire something someone else has. It focuses on the lack in one’s own life. It is therefore a nuanced form of sadness mixed in with shame. Both feelings result from conflicts within the self. That is, when we experience these emotions, it is usually due to a degree of dissatisfaction with ourselves. It is also a result of attaching emotional value and believing you cannot be ‘happy’ or ‘successful’ without “this person”, “thing”, or “job”. This is not the case as happiness and success are multifaceted, but we have convinced ourselves otherwise.

What’s the antidote to jealousy and envy?

Confidence, security, and satisfaction within the body and mind you occupy. Hear me out here. If you are confident in yourself or in your relationship with another or in your workplace and believe you are deserving of the person or job you have, you are not going to possess the same fear and anxiety over it being taken away from you as you think you are worthy of maintaining it. Envy is certainly the harder of the two evils to deflect. Not only does it involve satisfaction with oneself and what one already has, but it involves resisting an external force that does in fact permeate us like Melbourne weather: We live in an age of envy. Food envy. Phone envy. Holiday envy. Partner envy. Job envy. Hair envy. Aristotle spoke out about the envy we still suffer from today in fourth century BC. He explained it as agony at the sight of another’s fortune, fuelled by those who have what we so desire. One thousand years later, it was listed as one of the seven deadly sins.

The sin of Pride and Envy

In reading up on envy in the modern world, I came across an insightful picture graphic that identified how each of the seven deadly sins corresponds with each platform of popular technology. From Tinder’s Lust to Netflix’s Sloth and Linkedin’s Greed, it did not at all surprise me to see Pride tied to Instagram and Envy to Facebook. I am particularly interested in the Pride-Instagram pairing here. I am interested in the onslaught of constant, self-possessed pride (which is really a symptom of gross insecurity) being flaunted on Instagram. These are the very ingredients of envy. Social media platforms to the likes of these have made other people’s lives all too accessible. Once upon a time we might have envied our cousins, our neighbours, the girl with the long legs at the local café. Though now the whole world is available for intimate comparison. The result of this? A legitimacy crisis. If we are constantly exposed to the shiny perfect version of other people’s lives, how are we able to appreciate our own, often Ryvita-bland, experience?

We are all complicit in our own suffering.

According to my Social Psychology lecturer, Instagram encourages ‘upwards comparisons’ against people we consider better than us, which work to worsen our own self-evaluations. In the other direction are ‘downwards comparisons’ against people we believe we are better than, which increase our self-evaluations. It is important to recognise we are all complicit in the supply of envy, some more than others of course. Psychology professor, Ethan Kross, has dedicated his career to studying the impact of social media on our wellbeing. We are constantly bombarded by “Photoshopped lives”, he says, “and that exerts a toll on us the likes of which we have never experienced in the history of our species – and it is not particularly pleasant.”

Staying in one’s own lane is a start.

It’s very hard to eliminate such comparisons altogether. The self-evaluation maintenance model, proposed by Abraham Tesser in 1988, assumes humans are predisposed to self-evaluate via comparisons with others. Though, bringing mindfulness to this natural process is important. My lecturer offers two more positive uses of envy. Firstly, she suggests we pick up our envy in our hands and turn it around to gaze at it from every angle. In taking in the detail of the feeling, one might be able to identify the specific cause of longing and let this guide reflection about what they really want out of their own life. The specifics will hopefully illustrate one’s own desires and goals. For example, my feeling envious of a friend succeeding in her artform might signify I want to pursue my passion for writing more than I currently am. My lecturer stresses we should avoid comparison with others where we can, though she acknowledges this is easier said than done. She instead offers the much healthier practice of ‘temporal comparison’. This involves comparing your current way of being to an old version of yourself and asking if and how you have changed, grown, developed, learnt, or remained the same. This staying in one’s ‘own lane’ is the most relevant and productive form of comparison.

Remember: It does not mean you are less worthy or less of a person.

I feel enlightened by my lecturer’s advice. I am working towards a philosophy of sorts. I don’t want to live under the guise of other people’s flawless, filtered lives. What is the point? Who, in the end, wins from this behaviour? There are no winners, the outcome is a life empty of meaning and a never-ending feeling of inadequacy. This morning, I set out for an early walk before I am due to commence work at 8.30. I am walking from my small studio in Richmond to my friend’s house in Carlton North where I left my car last night. Walking through the various postcodes I’d like to call my own, I feel the envy creep in and fill my body. I take it in my hands and turn it around to inspect its texture. It takes time and practice to recognise that someone has something I want while at the same time recognising, I can survive -thrive even- without it. I must remind myself that not having it, does not make me less worthy or less of a person.