Most of us agree that jealousy is neither admirable nor helpful, but that doesn’t make it any easier to avoid. When we hear of a colleague’s promotion, a friend’s exotic travels, or an acquaintance’s glamorous lifestyle, it’s normal to feel a slight pang of envy.
Although envy is often pointless and counterproductive in the modern world, it likely reflects an important fact about our underlying human nature. We are social creatures, and we frequently compare ourselves to others in judging our levels of success and relevance in the world. When others are more successful than we are, we feel an attack on our sense of confidence and worth. At an extreme, these feelings of inadequacy and self-blame are closely associated with clinical depression.
There are many zero-sum outcomes in the world, where other people’s successes take opportunities away from us. For example, there may be a limited number of senior job titles in a business, and when others take them, they are officially withdrawn from the pool of options available to us. In this sense, it is understandable to feel hurt when others succeed at our expense. We avoid becoming a springboard that other people step on to get ahead, precisely because it feels so sour.
Unfortunately, we too often overextend our envious tendencies to situations where there is no real competition. The travel experiences of an old friend don’t subtract from our own opportunities for travel, so seeing their photos on a social network page shouldn’t impact our personal wellbeing. Alas, we too often fall into the envy trap even in these kinds of situations where it makes little sense.
So, excluding the times when envy is misdirected, its rationale is generally clear: social comparisons and limited opportunities create a competitive environment where jealousy can flourish. Fitting with this idea, we are most envious of the people who are most similar to us and the issues that are most important to us. We secretly resent the successes of other people when they throw a glaring light on our own perceived inadequacies.
What exactly is going on in the brain when we experience envy, and is there a way to control it when it becomes an obvious waste of mental energy?
Let’s look at the brain first. In one brain imaging study, nineteen volunteers read through a scenario about a group of students with different levels of ability and varying levels of similarity in personal characteristics. The volunteers had to imagine themselves as the protagonist in that story, comparing themselves to different students, and rating their feelings of envy.
As expected, people experienced the most envy when comparing themselves to students with greater skill and stronger similarity to them. And the more jealous they felt, the greater the level of activity in an area of their brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.
Schadenfreude — a feeling of pleasure associated with another person’s misfortune — is a close cousin of envy. If envy is the unpleasant experience we feel when someone gains the upper hand over us, then schadenfreude is the pleasant experience we feel when they crash back down to our level. The researchers in the brain imaging study above wanted to test what would happen when people experienced schadenfreude instead of envy, so they introduced misfortunes in some of their scenarios. When people witnessed misfortunes hitting enviable students, areas of their brain associated with reward — such as the striatum — became more active. And, once again, the more schadenfreude people felt, the higher the level of activity in those reward areas.
Another group of researchers in 2009 took a slightly different approach to studying envy and schadenfreude. They wanted to test the impact of a social hormone such as oxytocin, so they split people into two groups, and sprayed oxytocin in the nostrils of one group while spraying an inactive placebo in the nostrils of the other group. Everyone then played a simple game of chance in which they chose one of three doors in a computer game, and won an amount of money hidden behind that door. They participated in this game together with another player who could win more or less than they did.
Unsurprisingly, people felt envy when they won less money than their partner, and felt schadenfreude when they won more money than their partner. But interestingly, compared to the placebo group, people who took a puff of oxytocin before the game experienced both emotions to a greater extreme— even though the game had nothing to do with skill. The oxytocin made no difference to general mood when winnings were similar, suggesting that its effects were specific to interpersonal emotions that include displeasure with social loss and pleasure with social gain.
So we understand some of the biological mechanisms involved in envy, but how do feelings of envy evolve over time? Is jealousy stronger leading up to a competitor’s success or immediately after a competitor’s success?
In a recent 2019 study, researchers ran several experiments to examine this question. In their first experiment, they simply asked people to rate how jealous they would feel if their best friend achieved some desired outcome. For example, experimenters would ask each person to think about their dream vacation, date, or job promotion, and then express how jealous they would feel if they found out that a friend had achieved those desires. People would answer these questions while imagining their emotional state leading up to the friend’s triumph, or just after the friend’s triumph.
People judged the same event as more enviable in the days before it happened compared to after it happened. In other words, the worst of our envy emerges in the days leading up to an acquaintance’s success, and the intensity soon dies down after they’ve achieved it.
But are people just remembering things differently to how they happened? Are they really more jealous before an enviable event, or are they just mistakenly remembering it that way? To complement their first experiment with a more day-to-day analysis, the researchers also assessed people’s envy levels each day in February, because February features perhaps the most envy-filled festival of all: Valentine’s Day.
Confirming the results of the first experiment, when people learned of others’ exciting Valentine’s Day plans, they felt stronger jealousy during the days leading up to February 14th than the days following it. As Valentine’s Day approached, their envy mounted, but those feelings quickly diminished and returned to normal from February 15th.
In a third set of experiments, the researchers distinguished between malicious envy, which is similar to schadenfreude — “wanting to tear others down” — and benign envy, which is more self-motivating — “inspired to pull oneself up”. Benign envy is clearly a healthier mindset, so could its dynamics differ from malicious envy?
The effects for malicious envy looked similar to the original envy effects: people felt significantly more malicious before an enviable event than after an enviable event. But benign envy showed something a little different: it remained high even after an event had passed. Perhaps we can consider this a stroke of good fortune. Although benign envy still feels like envy, it’s certainly the better experience to be left with over the long term when compared to its malicious twin.
The researchers ended their study with the question many of us are most interested in: can we strategically manage our envy? They took a group of participants and asked them to think of an upcoming event in their life that made them feel envious. Then, they asked some of those participants to imagine fast forwarding one year in their life to assess the upcoming event as though it had happened in the past. And they asked the other participants to imagine rewinding one year in time to assess how the event would make them feel if it was in the distant future.
Compared to people who mentally pushed the event into the future, people who refocused the event into their past expressed less envy, less stress, and greater life satisfaction when assessing their current feelings. The simple act of reinterpreting an enviable event as though it had already come and gone — even if it had yet to occur in reality — was a helpful bulwark against stressful jealousy.
It makes intuitive sense that enviable events in the past should affect us less than enviable events that we know are coming soon. After all, what’s the point of hurt feelings after their causes fade into memory? Feeling malicious after a competitor has been promoted or praised won’t do much for us. But feeling malicious before it happens may push us to compete a little harder to win that praise for ourselves.
With that said, malicious intent is rarely good for anyone, so although it’s understandable, it’s also something we should avoid. Fortunately, benign intentions, and the motivation to do better, remain with us once malicious feelings and schadenfreude expire.
So where do we go from here? First, it’s useful to know that our biology is geared toward making us feel jealous of others’ fortunes and gratified about their misfortunes. The more we know about our underlying tendencies, and the more self-aware we are during moments of envy or schadenfreude, the better we can handle the emotions and turn them into a productive burst of energy.
Second, we can calm ourselves with the knowledge that our malicious feelings will never last forever, and that they will pass as soon as the enviable event has come and gone. The dominating kind of envy after that point will be the motivating kind rather than the malicious kind.
Finally, when we find ourselves struggling in the throes of unpleasant jealousy, there is always one practical strategy that we can employ: imagine the event as though it has already happened. When we mentally time travel into the future and look back on the dreaded event, we are less perturbed by jealous rumination. Envy and schadenfreude will always be common human experiences. If we can’t suffocate them, we can at least learn to steer them.