Envy, jealousy, and longing, pt 2

I am very precise in my speech about the distinction between envy and jealousy. Envy is seeing what someone else has and thinking, “I want that.” Jealousy is seeing what someone else has and thinking, “I want that, and it should be mine instead of theirs.” The line is sometimess fuzzy, but jealousy always includes that sense of entitlement, as well as the sense that it’s a zero-sum game: what one person has must necessarily be depriving someone else.

Envy is a less toxic emotion, though it has its own problems. The simplest form of envy is just aggravated longing: when you see someone else enjoying what you’ve desperately wanted, it usually sharpens the longing. The danger here is letting envy corrupt into jealousy, beginning to tell yourself that you deserve the thing more than the other person does (entitlement), that it’s not fair that so many other people have it and you don’t (zero-sum thinking.) The healthiest response is to just sit with the longing, use whatever coping tools you’ve devised, and treat the fact that someone else has what you want as the irrelevancy it is. (Obviously this doesn’t hold in cases where their having it does mean that you can’t; then we’re talking about legitimate jealousy, which I’ll write more about next time.) Unless you can use their example as a clue to how you might obtain the longed-for thing yourself — which in many cases you can — it doesn’t matter that they have it. What’s bothering you is that you don’t, and you need to deal with the emotion there.

The more interesting kind of envy is the envy that arises in response to something you didn’t know you wanted. You’ve been going along more or less content and suddenly you see someone else enjoying some experience or possession, and suddenly you feel powerfully that that is what you want, that would make you happy, and your life will no longer be complete until you have it. Envy as the birth of longing.

I actually view this kind of envy as quite useful, as long as you’re analytical about it. We in our culture (I don’t know about others) are abysmally bad at knowing what we want. Most of us go through life with this general sense that things could be better, that we could be happier and more satisfied, but we are confused about how to make that happen. We get lots of commercial and authoritarian messages about what should make us happy, but those are produced by people working for their own goals… people who may be completely indifferent to whether we actually become happier as a result of following their advice.

I firmly believe that the world would be better if people thought more about how to make themselves happy: thought carefully, rationally, with good self-knowledge and a long-term view. But to do that we need to be able to listen to the whispers of lack and longing in our own body, which is not something that we as a society are trained to do. A moment of envy can be a valuable clue to what your body and brain need to feel satisfaction, but you often have to take that clue and analyze it carefully. What would be better about your life if you had this thing? What do you imagine enjoying about it? Would it give you a feeling of security? Of social importance? Of pleasure? Of purpose?

I play this game with myself often, and it’s usually revealing. The specific object of envy shows me an area where I feel incomplete; having seen that, I can consider ways to go about completing it.


2 thoughts on “Envy, jealousy, and longing, pt 2

  1. Great, insightful post. I haven’t really thought about this much before, but I’m starting to think that it is a question of key cultural importance – namely, the question of determining what makes us happy (and recognizing the feeling of longing that tells us what we truly need to be happy).

    You make a good point that in modern society people receive a constant bombardment of messages telling them what they need to be happy – but I would go further and assert that those messages are coupled with messages telling people why they shouldn’t be happy with what they already have. In other words, advertisers have a direct economic interest in creating dissatisfaction & unhappiness, because that is the only way that they can convince people that their product/service is needed to make them happy. So the damage happens on two fronts: people are made to feel unhappy with themselves and their lives, and they have lost the ability to discern what they need to be happy because of the constant bombardment of messages telling them what to want – creating artificial feelings and desires, if you will. I think this is so incredibly damaging because I feel the point of life is to follow our true desires, our inner vision – the only thing that can truly make us happy – and the only way to know what we truly desire is to look within and follow our feelings.

    It truly shocks me that the dominant culture is full of, literally billions, of people that go through life completely cut off from their inner vision. People have been enculturated to suppress/ignore their inner desires and longings (telling them what they need to be happy) so that they will voluntarily submit to an unhappy life of wage slavery (the rat race). No wonder depression, addiction, abuse, and the destruction of the natural world are the hallmarks of this culture.


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