You feel envy when someone else has something that you want to have1. 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 another person2. In each of these cases, you determine that the other person is better off than you, and that you would want that good thing 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 another area, such as social position.
In order to feel envious of someone, you need to compare yourself to that person. Because people tend to compare themselves to people with whom they are in direct ‘competition’, these are likely people from within their 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 slightly wealthier neighbor than a distant billionaire3.
Often a distinction is made between two types of envy: benign envy and malicious envy4. 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 envious, 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 noxious emotion – for instance, it is one of the seven deadly sins in Christian ethics – it can indeed inspire positive behavior. Mainly, it can motivate people to perform better to achieve the desired object or position5. 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 are just comparing their new smartphones, which are clearly better than the old model Murphy is still using.