Painful desire

Envy

The feeling when something good has happened to someone else, but not to you. You keep wishing that the good thing had happened to you instead.

You feel envy when someone else has something that you want to have. A prototypical example is when someone possesses an expensive or exclusive item that you would also like to own, such as an expensive car, a beautiful home or front row tickets to a sports match. However, the emotion is not limited to material possessions. We can envy someone else’s intelligence, good looks, social position, or relationship with a person. In each of these cases, you determine that the other person is better off than you, and that you would want that good things for yourself instead. Note that you do not necessarily have to think that the other person is better off on all accounts: for instance, you may envy someone’s good looks, but feel that you are better off in other areas such as social position and intelligence.

In order to feel envious of someone, you need to compare yourselves to that person. Because we tend to compare ourselves to people with whom we are in direct ‘competition’, these are likely people from within our social circle. So, although it seems evident that the better-off the other person is, the more envious you would feel, in practice we are more likely to envy our neighbor, who is slightly better off, than a distant billionaire.

Often a distinction is made between two types of envy: benign envy and malicious envy. Benign envy focuses more on the wish to have the object of the other person, and the emotion would be resolved by acquiring it. Malicious envy also includes the judgment that the other person does not deserve the good thing, so not only do you want to have the object for yourself, you also want the other person to not have it anymore. For example, a child may be envious of his sister, who has a nice toy. If he is benignly envy, he could simply ask his parents if he can also have that toy. If he is maliciously envious, he could try and steal his sister’s toy instead.

Although envy is often seen as a nasty emotion – for instance, it is one of the seven deadly sins in Christian ethics – it can actually inspire positive behavior. Mainly, it can motivate people to perform better to achieve the desired object or position. This is only true of benign envy, though, not of malicious envy.

In the comic, Murphy passes by the offices of the sales department. His colleagues there are just comparing their new smartphones, which are clearly better than the old model Murphy is still using.

Movie clips

Typical expressions

“Why does she have so much and I so little?”

“Look at that house. I wish we lived there.”

Murphy's bad day

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Comparisons with other emotions

Envy & Longing

Longing and envy are both about desiring something that you don’t have. The difference is that someone experiencing longing focuses on the desired object, while an envious person is mostly unhappy because he is worse off than someone else. For example, someone can be happy with his current salary, but become envious when he learns that his colleague is making more. He was not longing for the object (the higher salary) as such, but feels envy because he does not want to be doing worse than his colleague. Secondly, in longing, there does not have to be another person – someone may long for something without caring whether someone else has it or doesn't have it.

Envy & Jealousy

Envy and jealousy are among the most-often confused emotions. This confusion is usually one-way, though: people often use the word jealousy when they mean envy, but not the other way around. For instance, someone can be said to be jealous of her classmate’s good grades. In practice, the words are now used interchangeably for cases of envy. Although both emotions are about comparisons that turn out negatively for the person having the emotion, they are actually quite different. In one way they are even each other’s opposite: envy is evoked when someone has something good that you want, jealousy when you have something good that you believe someone else wants to have. However, the emotions may co-occur, in a scenario where you believe you may lose your special relationship to someone who is a serious rival because he has qualities that you do not possess. However, you can also be jealous of a person who threatens your relationship without envying anything about them, or reversely, envy someone for what they have without them threatening any of your relationships.

Envy & Resentment

Resentment and envy are both emotions about what you have in relation to what other people have. Envy can be divided in benign envy and malicious envy (see envy explanation). Benign envy simply means “I wish I had what you have”. There are no judgments involved whether this situation is fair or deserved. Resentment, on the other hand, concerns itself specifically with this judgment: “You don’t deserve this” and/or “I do deserve this”. Malicious envy is subsequently a combination of these two feelings: “I wish I had what you have, because I deserve it and you don’t”. Compare three situations in which a colleague gets a job promotion. In situation 1, you were also interested in the better job and you consider the colleague a competent worker and a friend. In this situation, you may feel benign envy: “I wish I had the better job, but I also think you deserve it”. In situation 2, you are not interested in the job, and you dislike the colleague and consider him incompetent. In this situation, you are more likely to feel resentment: “You don’t deserve this job”. In situation 3, you are interested in the job, and you dislike the colleague and consider him incompetent. In this situation, you are most likely to feel malicious envy: “I should have gotten this job instead of you’.