Let’s Talk About Envy

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By Lim Zhi Qi Victoria (23S06B)

I want friends like that, I want his popularity, I want a partner like that, I want eyes like hers, I want her bravery and his intelligence, I want their happiness. Nobody intends to actively compare themselves with others, but it has become inevitable in the society that we grow up in. It’s natural for us to collect information about our surroundings, and use it to evaluate how we are doing in life. 

Though not all forms of comparison lead to envy, envy always starts with self-comparison. I think the envy that we experience nowadays goes far beyond just wanting something, but also includes the element of not wanting the other person to have it. 

Envy is engendered when we see someone have something that we want, resulting in a gap between where we are and where we want to be. This gap, which might previously have unknowingly been there, is magnified by new information that we gather from the people around us: their grades, their friend groups, their relationship status. These can make the gap in our own lives seem so much more of a big deal than it might actually be. 

Insecurities also arise through such comparisons. Scrolling through the profiles of skinny influencers on Instagram makes some of us wonder if we are considered fat or overweight. It makes us more self-conscious about what we eat or what we wear. This is just one typical example of how self-comparison can lead to the surfacing of new insecurities. 

Have any of these feelings of envy or insecurity ever made anyone happier? I would confidently say that the answer is no. In fact, it can cause you to ‘move backwards’, making you resentful and dissatisfied with life. 

How then can we deal with any envy that we might experience? While I am in no way a qualified psychologist or experienced advice-giver, here are some thoughts based on my own experiences and reflections on my life and other people’s stories.

First, it is important to recognise that most of the time, the envy we experience isn’t about a specific person: it’s only about what that person has. If we remove the person from the equation and separate what we desire from the person that we ‘envy’, it gives us clarity about what we really want. This person might have helped us identify a gap in our lives that we didn’t realise was even there.

In this light, our desire for something no longer feels like envy; in fact, it might feel like a new goal for ourselves. Feelings of resentment are reduced, allowing us to turn envy from a hostile emotion to a non-hostile emotion that can help us move forward. 

Second, we should bear in mind that we have power over our actions. Sometimes, envy can lead us to do something harmful, such as disrupt friendships or shatter our confidence. Sometimes, if we achieve more clarity and enlightenment, it can guide us to do something useful, like giving us the motivation to improve an aspect of our life. But sometimes, I think it’s also okay to just not do anything — even as we strive for self-improvement, sometimes we have to be content with where we are. 

The hedonic treadmill is an idea that whatever satisfaction we receive from new achievements tends to be transient, and we eventually return to a baseline level of happiness after a while. Even though it is easy to want something or desire a particular situation, we often realise after attaining what we desire that having it  does not necessarily make us happier. Hence, envy does not always have to be a sign of something that we are lacking and ought to be pursuing; sometimes we can just acknowledge the feeling and do nothing about it. 

In a world where everyone’s private lives can easily be displayed on the screens of our phones, it is easy to get caught up in wanting what others have. It is through no fault of our own, or the fault of others, that we experience envy, but we still have the capability to decide what we do with this feeling. When you start feeling envy bubbling inside of you, maybe take a step back and consider why you are feeling this way, and what you really want to achieve through this emotion, and hopefully, you will make a decision that truly gets you to a better place. 

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