“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
In the 13th canto of “Purgatorio” in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the 14th-century Italian poet describes the ultimate punishment of people who in life had fallen prey to envy, one of the seven deadly sins. He shows them perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Because envy started with what they saw, their eyes are wired shut. To avoid falling, they must support themselves upon one another, something they never did in life. This is a pretty grim punishment—not surprising, perhaps, given that envy is the only sin that is forbidden by not just one of the Ten Commandments in the Catholic tradition, but two.
Perhaps you are less concerned than Dante with punishment in the hereafter. There is plenty of evidence that envy—the resentful longing for what someone else possesses—can give you a little bit of hell or purgatory in the here and now. We all know how envy feels—how it sours our love and desiccates our soul. How it brings out the ugly, spiteful phantasms inside us that take pleasure in the suffering of others for no other reason than that their good fortune makes ours feel insufficient in comparison. As the essayist Joseph Epstein has written, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
Envy, in short, is a happiness killer. Unfortunately, it is also completely natural, and no one escapes it entirely. But if you understand it better, you can stop fueling it and step back from that cliff’s edge.
The possible explanations for the natural, evolutionary roots of envy are easy to imagine. Social comparison is how we gauge our relative place in society, and thus how we know what to strive for in order to stay competitive for resources and viable in mating markets. When we see that we fall behind others, the pain we feel often spurs us to build ourselves up—or to tear others down. All of this could have been life-and-death in troglodyte times, but it feels largely anachronistic today. You are unlikely to die alone because your social-media posts are less popular than others’. But the pain can still be just as acute.
[Read: Margaret Atwood on envy and friendship in old age]
How people act in the face of this pain has led some scholars to distinguish between benign envy and malicious envy. The former is miserable, but is met with a desire for self-improvement and to emulate the envied person. In contrast, malicious envy leads to wholly destructive actions, such as hostile thoughts and behavior intended to harm the other person. Benign envy occurs when you believe that admiration for the other person is deserved; malicious envy kicks in when you believe it isn’t. This is why you might envy a famous war hero but wish him no ill, while enjoying the news that a handsome Hollywood actor’s ninth marriage has just failed.
Envy—especially when malicious—is terrible for you. To begin with, the pain is real: Neuroscientists find that envying other people stimulates the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with both physical and mental pain. It can also wreck your future. Scholars writing in 2018 in the journal Social Science & Medicine studied 18,000 randomly selected individuals and found that their experience of envy was a powerful predictor of worse mental health and lower well-being in the future. Ordinarily, people become psychologically healthier as they age; envy can stunt this trend. Even though other studies have shown that benign envy might spur your ambition, this one did not find that envy predicted later economic success at all.
Different people envy different things. For example, I can see people with fancy boats and cars all day and be utterly unmoved. But show me a full head of hair on a man my age, and well, you might as well set me out on the cliff with my eyes wired shut. Scholars have noted some general patterns in envy, however. For example, some research suggests that what people envy tends to change with age. Young people may be more envious than older folks of educational and social success, good looks, and romantic fortune. Older people generally shrug at these things, but tend to envy people with money. Men and women tend to envy different qualities. According to one pair of studies, men most envy social status and prestige. For women, it was physical attractiveness. For both genders, the second greatest source of envy was success in attracting romantic partners.
To feel envy, you need to have exposure to people who appear more fortunate than you. That is simple enough in ordinary interactions. But the conditions of envy explode if we expose people to a wide array of strangers curating their lives to look as glamorous, successful, and happy as possible. Obviously, I am describing social media. In fact, academics have even used the term Facebook envy to capture the uniquely fertile circumstances that social media creates for this destructive emotion. And in experiments, scholars have shown that, indeed, passive Facebook use (although no doubt this is not limited to Facebook) measurably decreases well-being through increased envy.
If I could snap my fingers and eradicate envy from my life, I would, and I bet you would too. But envy is natural, and getting rid of it would be impossible for all but perhaps the most enlightened. Cosimo de’ Medici in the 15th century had a more workable approach. He compared envy to a virulent, naturally occurring weed. The job is not to try to eradicate it, which would be futile; rather, he taught, just don’t water it.
1. Focus on the ordinary parts of others’ lives.
The main way that we water that terrible weed is with our attention. We focus intently on the qualities we want but lack. For example, you might envy an entertainer’s fame and wealth, and imagine how those qualities would make your life so much easier and more fun. But think a little deeper. Do you really believe that entertainer’s life is so great? Is her money and fame bringing a healthy marriage? Does it eliminate her sadness and anger? Probably not; perhaps the contrary.
[Read: To be happy, hide from the spotlight]
Psychologists have shown that you can use this observation to blunt your envy. In 2017, researchers asked a group to think of demographically similar people whom they considered to have exceptionally good circumstances in their lives. They found that focusing only on these circumstances led to painful contrast with participants’ own lives, and thus to envy. But when they were instructed to think about the everyday ups and downs that these people surely also experienced, envy was diminished.
2. Turn off the envy machine.
Social media increases envy because it does three things: It shows you the lives of people more fortunate than you; it is easier than ever for anyone to flaunt their good fortune to the masses; and it puts you in the same virtual community as people who are not in your real-life community, making you compare yourself with them. Celebrities’ and influencers’ posts are a particularly potent—and unnecessary—source of envy. The solution is not to ditch social media; it is to unfollow people you don’t know and whose posts you simply look at because they have what you want. Use social media to keep up with real friends, learn interesting and empowering things, and maybe have a few laughs. There’s enough envy among friends—don’t expand it to the world’s population!
3. Show your unenviable self.
While you are working to curtail your envy of others, stop trying to be envied yourself. Wanting to display your strengths and hide your weaknesses from strangers is natural. This might feel good, but it is a mistake. Obscuring the truth to yourself and others is a path to anxiety and unhappiness. And as my colleague Alison Wood Brooks and her collaborators showed in a 2019 study on entrepreneurs in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, when the participants were honest not just about what they did right but also about how they failed along the way, observers experienced less malicious envy. But be careful: Your failures have to be authentic. So-called humblebragging, in which a boast is disguised as humility, can be perceived a mile off and makes you less likable to others.
In 1807, the British poet Mary Lamb wrote a few stanzas on the misery of envy, in which she imagines a rose bush that cannot appreciate its own gifts because it frets about not bearing violets or lilies. She concludes, “Like such a blind and senseless tree / As I’ve imagined this to be, / All envious persons are: / With care and culture all may find / Some pretty flower in their own mind, / Some talent that is rare.”
This is probably the best antidote of all to envy: gratitude and appreciation for your own gifts, whatever they may be. Lots of research shows that gratitude extinguishes envy, but you already knew that. So put this knowledge to good use: Next time the hound of envy barks inside you, quiet it with thoughts of the people who love you, the things you enjoy, the good fortune you have had.