How to Make Envy Work for You

I have an acquaintance whom I’ve followed for years on social media — even though most of her posts fill me with envy. She always seems to be on a different tropical vacation. How many beaches can a person visit?

When I showed my husband her latest post from the dunes, he suggested I unfollow her.

“It’s not that easy,” I told him.

“It actually is,” he said.

Envy, the feeling you get when you perceive that someone is better off than you, is something many of us can recognize, said Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and a professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College, who researches envy. But we often feel both shame and guilt, he said.

“In pop psychology, people might say you should never have any envy,” Dr. Leahy said. “That’s absurd. You’re human.”

Envy is most often confused with jealousy, Dr. Leahy said, but they’re different. Jealousy involves perceived threats to relationships, he explained, but envy crops up when you experience threats to your status.

And while envy can stir up feelings like resentment or defeat, it can be motivating, too, he said.

So how do we make the tendency to “compare and despair” work for us? I asked experts for advice.

If you feel a surge of envy, first, own up to it, Dr. Leahy said. “Making room for envy and noticing when it shows up allows people not to be afraid of it.”

It’s OK if you envy a friend, Dr. Leahy said. Your emotions are likely more complex. “You can think, I love my friend, I appreciate what they do for me and their good qualities, and I envy them,” he said. “You don’t have to reduce your thoughts or emotions about a person to envy.”

Don’t react to envy impulsively, said Manuel Gonzalez, an assistant professor of psychology at Montclair State University, who has studied envy. Instead, explore what you are fixating on when you feel envious, he said. What issues does it bring up in your own life?

Use that information to clarify your own desires and ambitions, Dr. Gonzalez said. Then, he said, ask yourself: Why do I envy this person? How can I use this person as a role model? What can I learn that can change my own situation?

I told Dr. Gonzalez about my beach-loving friend and explained that I don’t even like being in the sun. He peppered me with questions: Is this feeling of envy about her being on the beach or about having the extra hours to lounge? Was I craving more leisure time? I admitted that I was.

“Is this an indication that you should start taking more vacations?” Dr. Gonzalez asked. I told him I was probably envious of all the time she was spending with her family — as they posed by the water in matching shirts. “So maybe this is bringing up how she seems to be prioritizing family time,” he said.

When you are hijacked by envious thoughts, recognize them, but try not to succumb to them, Dr. Leahy said. “Think of envy as a telemarketing call,” he said. “You can choose to notice it but not answer the phone and engage.”

You can also combat envious feelings by practicing gratitude, “since it is hard to simultaneously be in both states at once,” said Christine Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego, who has researched the emotion. When you are overcome with envy, she said, list all of the things that you appreciate in your own life. (You can write it down if it helps.)

“Envy empties you out, gratitude fills you up,” Dr. Leahy added.

And take comfort that envy may diminish over time, Dr. Harris said. Her research has found that young adults are more envious than older adults.

But if envy is making you depressed, angry, overwhelmed or leading you to avoid people, then it might be helpful to seek counseling, Dr. Leahy said.

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